Don’t blame Citizens United for the worst excesses of this year’s election.
Instead, look to the failures of the Federal Election Commission.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — which created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited amounts independently of federal candidates or party committees — has been rightly criticized for its legal incoherence, judicial activism and equation of corporations with individuals. However, it’s not responsible for two of the most outrageous aspects of the 2012 campaign: the super PACs that claimed to be independent despite their close association with candidates, and the hundreds of millions of dollars from secret donors that paid for an avalanche of negative campaign ads.
Concerning the super PACs, the court — in several rulings, including Citizens United — said the only unlimited campaign expenditures it was enabling had to be “wholly,” “totally” and “truly” independent of candidates and political parties. As for secret donors, the Citizens United opinion stated that, under existing law, the sources of funding for election ads would be fully and speedily disclosed on the Internet — promising that shareholders could hold corporations “accountable” for their political donations, and voters could “see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests.’ ”