By Tiffany Muller
Exploiting Citizens United
Thirteen years ago, the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United v. FEC decision, one of the most disastrous decisions in the Court’s history. The case took two bad ideas and combined them–the idea that money equals speech and corporations are people. The Court effectively put a for sale sign on our democracy.
It opened the door to a flood of corporate and billionaire spending in our elections. These special interests give out blank checks supporting their hand-picked candidates every election to buy access and influence. The goal is to buy votes in Congress on legislation to pad their bottom lines. That’s exactly what crypto billionaires like Sam Bankman-Fried tried to do this past election.
Sam Bankman-Fried saw a broken system set up by the Citizens United decision and exploited it. He knew he could spend his wealth to hand-pick election winners and buy policy outcomes to avoid government regulations on cryptocurrency. Because of the Citizens United decision, he gave tens of millions of dollars to candidates and political organizations, like super PACs. The amount of dark money he gave Republicans made him the 3rd largest Republican donor in the 2022 midterms.
Worse, is that his dark money donations to Republicans–which by his own admission were only possible because of Citizens United–were completely legal. He was playing within the bounds of the system, which underscores how broken our system really is.
All Too Common
The influence of billionaires has become all too common over the last 13 years. In the 2022 midterms, billionaire Peter Thiel selected and recruited extremist candidates Blake Masters and J.D. Vance to run for Senate. He spent over $30 million to push them through their Republican primaries. With Vance now in the Senate, Thiel has more power and access to determine policy outcomes and make himself even richer.
Big money in politics is not a problem limited to the tech industry. The reason the Republican Party votes to protect Big Pharma, the gun lobby, and cut taxes for wealthy corporations is because every special interest weaponizes the system created by Citizens United.
In the 13 years since the decision, super PACs and dark money groups have spent $9 billion dollars in federal elections. One billion dollars of that was dark money spent in the 2020 election alone. This is a more than six fold increase in outside spending post Citizens United.
While some of Sam Bankman-Fried’s exploits were corrupt but within the bounds of the law, he didn’t stop there. He committed some egregious campaign finance law violations, including using straw donors.
Had our broken system been better prepared, with proper oversight and enforcement powers, we could have stopped him sooner.
Here’s How We Fix It
- Pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would require immediate disclosure of any money spent on elections above $10,000.
- Pass reforms to break the gridlock at the FEC and make it an effective watchdog, with the actual ability to investigate and enforce campaign finance laws.
- Create a small dollar matching program to empower small dollar donors and incentivize politicians to work for regular people instead of big corporate checks.
Most importantly, we can overturn the Citizens United decision that is at the heart of so much corruption in our system.
No one wants billionaires and corporations to have more of a say in our system than everyday Americans. But right now, thanks to Citizens United, wealthy elites, like Sam Bankman-Fried and Peter Thiel, and corporate special interests, including Big Pharma and Big Oil, are able to drown out our voices.
That’s why 79% of voters support candidates who want to ban dark money spending in our elections, and why thirteen years after this egregious decision, it is more important than ever to make the changes necessary to ensure every American can have their voice and vote heard in our elections. That is how we protect our democracy so it works for all of us.
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