The best analysis of damage done by Citizens United

Today in the Times, Thomas Edsall lays out — I wish he could literally, lay it out on the ground and drive a stake through its heart — Citizens United, which many experts consider the worst Supreme Court decision ever. Inarguably, it is one of the worst.

Edsall’s essay tells us everything about it, and details its awfulness.

Some excerpts:

In the eight years since it was decided, Citizens United has unleashed a wave of campaign spending that by any reasonable standard is extraordinarily corrupt.

To see how this operates in practice, let’s take a look at how Paul Ryan, the outgoing speaker of the House, negotiated a path — narrowly constructed to stay on the right side of the law — during a recent fund-raising trip to Las Vegas, as recounted in detail by Politico.

In early May, Ryan flew to Nevada to solicit money from Sheldon Adelson — the casino magnate who was by far the largest Republican contributor of 2018 — for the Congressional Leadership Fund, an independent expenditure super PAC. Ryan was accompanied by Norm Coleman, a former Republican Senator from Minnesota.

The Leadership Fund, according to its website, is “a super PAC exclusively dedicated to protecting and strengthening the Republican Majority in the House of Representatives.” It “operates independently of any federal candidate or officeholder.”

Adelson could not legally hand over his check to Ryan, who is a federal officeholder. Incidentally, Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, reported a $700 million windfall as a result of the $1.5 trillion tax cut enacted last year by the House under Ryan’s supervision.

So how did they conduct this delicate transaction?

First, Ryan, Coleman and others “laid out a case to Adelson about how crucial it is to protect the House,” according to Politico’s report. Then Ryan “left the room, Coleman made the ‘ask’ and secured the $30 million contribution.”

The only cheerful note struck by this little tale is Adelson’s big bucks did not “protect the House.”

It’s my guess political spending has become one of the US’s major industries. Here are the facts, per Edsall:

Since 2010, when the case was decided, independent expenditures and other forms of outside spending have grown exponentially, according to OpenSecrets. In 2010, independent expenditures totaled $203.9 million; in 2016, it was $1.48 billion. In this nonpresidential year, with final reports still to come, independent expenditures totaled at least $1.18 billion.

Corruption? The man who wrote the decision, Anthony Kennedy, said no. But:

The key changes in campaign finance practices over the past eight years stem from the ruling in Citizens United and Speech Now that contributions to independent expenditure committees, including super PACs, pose no threat of “quid pro quo” political corruption. There is no corruption, Justice Kennedy wrote in Citizens United, because “an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate.”

Roll Call, in a story headlined “Firewall Between Candidates and Super PACs Breaking Down” described the myth of non-coordination:

The supposed barrier between candidates and unrestricted super PACs is flimsier than ever. As midterm elections approach, complaints are rolling into the F.E.C. from both parties about super PACs that share vendors, fund-raisers and video footage with the politicians they support.


The detrimental role super PACs play in campaigns prompted Albert W. Alschuler, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and three colleagues — including Tribe — to argue in a 2017 working paper that the negative attack ads spawned by super PACS are in themselves corrosive and provide adequate grounds to ban such PACs and the unlimited contributions that fund them…


Bob Bauer, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer who is now a law professor at N.Y.U., wrote me that the Supreme Court’s

intervention in the political process has been defined by a lack of prescience or success. What the majority in Citizens United had to say about corporate independent expenditures and the risk of corruption seemed entirely divorced from reality…

Citizens United, “entirely divorced from reality.” If only that could be its epitaph.

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