Isaiah Castilla

Policy Responses in the Wake of Citizens United

On January 21, 2010, the United States Supreme Court dramatically altered the campaign finance laws when it issued a 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.  While the Court’s decision did not remove the prohibition on corporate campaign contributions to candidates, the decision does allow for business and nonprofit corporations and unions to make independent expenditures out of their general treasuries.   The ruling has already had a significant effect on elections, as expenditures from corporate-funded outside groups have risen dramatically.  As a result, there have been numerous efforts to mitigate the decision’s effect.

Currently there are several proposed constitutional amendments in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.   For example, Rep. Donna Edwards and Rep. John Conyers have sponsored a resolution for a constitutional amendment giving Congress and the states the specific authority to regulate corporate expenditures on political activity.  There’s a similar amendment resolution in the Senate sponsored by Senator Tom Udall.   In addition to the legislative calls for a constitutional amendment, organizations such as Public Citizen, Free Speech for People, and Business for Democracy have asked the public to sign petitions urging Congress to push for a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people and that states and Congress should have the right to regulate expenditures on political activity.

In addition to the various proposed constitutional amendments, another effort to mitigate the impact of corporate spending is to change the public financing system to encourage more small donations by more people.  On April 6, 2011, Senator Dick Durbin reintroduced The Fair Elections Now Act.  The provisions of this bill require that candidates raise a large number of small contributions from their communities in order to qualify for Fair Elections funding.   House candidates would have to collect 1,500 contributions from citizens of their sate and raise $50,000 in order to qualify for Fair Elections funding.  For Senate candidates to qualify for funding, they would need to raise a set amount of small contributions, amounting to a total of 10% of the primary Fair Elections funding.

On the state level, 16 states have enacted legislation in response to Citizens United.  Many of the state legislative responses require more disclosure by donors to organizations that make independent expenditures and ban government contractors from making expenditures on statewide races.   In Iowa, for example, laws requiring corporate-sponsored ads to include an approval message from the CEO were passed.  Colorado’s legislature now prohibits bans on campaign contributions from government contractors and bars foreign money in their state’s elections.  These are just a few examples of state legislative action intended to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics.

Alliance for Justice is continuing to monitor these activities at the state and national level, and will keep you informed of developments that affect nonprofits.

- Isaiah Castilla

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