A Closer Look at Citizens United

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February 9, 2011; Source: The Atlantic | At a minimum, American Prospect senior correspondent Wendy Kaminer has incredibly well titled books, particularly "Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials" and "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional." But Kaminer is known to many NPQ readers for her service as a national ACLU board member from 1999 to 2006, during which time she was a very public critic of the ACLU's leadership, leading at one point to an ACLU effort to prevent people on the board from criticizing the organization publicly.

Whether you agree with her politics or not, one of her huge strengths is that she doesn't accept B.S. from the left or the right and will call people out when they are unintentionally or willfully sloppy or inaccurate in their thinking. In this Atlantic piece, she calls out writers (like The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel) and newspapers (such as the Washington Post and the New York Times) for inaccurately intimating that the Citizens United case allowed corporations to make direct contributions to political candidates' electoral campaigns.

It didn't. Rather, as Kaminer put it, "Citizens United struck down a ban on independent expenditures enabling advocacy for or against candidates by non-profit or for profit corporations or unions in the run-up to an election." The counterargument would be that corporations' contributions to a 501(c)(4) for advocacy against a candidate are little different than their making a direct contribution to a political campaign. She is right on the law, even to the point that independent expenditures for or against political candidates existed even prior to Citizens United, except in the immediate run-up to campaigns; the Supreme Court decision really overturned the McCain-Feingold prohibition of issue advocacy in the run-up to campaigns.

Our point here at NPQ has been that Citizens United didn't overturn corporate contributions to campaigns or confer a completely new right to corporations regarding independent expenditures. But it gave corporations the signal to freely unleash even more money into the political process – even though not directly to candidates' campaigns – as part of this nation's increasing tendency to equate money with free speech. What’s more by virtue of giving to 501(c)(4)s, the contributions by corporations can be made with exceptionally limited transparency and disclosure.

Kaminer takes on "liberal critics of the decision" who don't acknowledge that Citizens United gave liberal advocacy groups the same rights that it gave to "unpopular corporate behemoths." But with corporate treasuries to draw on, corporations have a bigger bank account than advocacy groups and all but a few individual citizens. Kaminer's clarifications are useful, but there's still much to debate and rectify about campaign finance, including the money that doesn't go directly into candidates' campaigns.—Rick Cohen