A look at the impact of Citizens United on its 9th anniversary

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Countless pundits and politicians decry the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling for making federal elections murkier than ever, but nine years later, the impact of the 2010 Supreme Court decision has never been clearer.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on independent expenditures from corporations and labor unions. The infamous decision set a precedent that through later rulings would spawn the creation of so-called super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and other groups.

In the election cycles following Citizens United, the balance of power has shifted more and more toward outside spending groups such as super PACs and “dark money” political nonprofits, unleashing unprecedented amounts of money toward political advertisements meant to influence voters.

The immediate result of the ruling was a massive uptick in spending from outside groups in the 2010 midterms. But it didn’t end there. In the years following Citizen United, prominent party leaders helped establish super PACs, effectively funneling money to a small handful of well-connected outside groups and blurring the lines between super PACs and candidates, who are not allowed to coordinate on independent expenditures.

Unburdened by contribution limits, it didn’t take long for super PACs to surpass national party committees as the top outside spending groups. In 2018, each of the top three outside spending groups were establishment-connected super PACs: the House GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund ($136 million), Harry Reid-connected Senate Majority PAC ($112 million) and Mitch McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund ($94 million).

Since 2010, each new election cycle is breaking records with ease, with the bulk of the increase coming from a jump in outside spending.

With no contribution limits in place, super PACs and related outside spending groups have no cap on their spending growth. The same can’t be said for traditional PACs, which can only accept a maximum of $5,000 from individuals each year and contribute up to $5,000 directly to each candidate per election cycle.

PACs gave out $416 million to candidates in the 2008 election cycle. That number rose to $497 million in 2018, a mild increase.

Still, that hasn’t stopped PACs from becoming the face of Citizens United. A growing number of candidates and congressional members, particularly Democrats, have sworn off donations from corporate or business-related PACs, blaming them for the influence of money in politics.

Of the declared 2020 Democratic candidates thus far, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Julian Castro, each has declared, to different degrees, opposition to accepting corporate PAC money.

But despite Democratic messaging on the issue, the reality is corporate PAC contributions have not changed much since Citizens United. On the other hand, candidates can’t do anything about the massive increase in political spending from unassociated outside groups.

Spending from dark money groups — which do not disclose their donors — a huge leap forward right after Citizens United, though this hidden spending was already prevalent before the landmark ruling. What the ruling did was give dark money groups conduits that appear legitimate and transparent to the American public — super PACs — to funnel funds into.  

Although super PACs must disclose their donors, they can accept unlimited contributions from dark money nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors. Therefore a super PAC can simply list the nonprofit as the donor, keeping the identity of the actual sources of funding secret.

In 2018, the majority of outside spending came from either dark money spenders or groups that take money from dark money sources. A record 38.8 percent of spending was partially-disclosed, as super PACs and other outside spending groups took in an estimated $176 million from dark money groups.

Another lasting impact of Citizens United is the rising influence of megadonors. In 2010, the top individual donor gave out $7.6 million to candidates and groups. That number shot up in 2012, when Sheldon and Miriam Adelson gave out nearly $93 million to outside spending groups alone.

Megadonors were always hamstrung by strict candidate and PAC contribution limits that remain in place today. With super PACs, they can give as much as they want. Also aiding megadonors is the 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC Supreme Court ruling that removed limits on how much an individual donor can give in an election cycle.

In 2018, the Adelsons gave $123 million. Michael Bloomberg gave $90 million. Tom Steyer gave $70 million.

Even as Citizens United remains in effect, popular opinion has grown against it. A recent study found 81 percent of surveyed individuals supported a constitutional amendment overturning the Court’s decision.

Members of the House in early January introduced a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision and other Supreme Court decisions that eliminated restrictions on the influence of money in politics. With HR. 1, House Democrats called for the ruling to be repealed.

Though Citizens United has become the face of money in politics, it is one of several Supreme Court rulings that helped shape the current campaign finance environment. Check out the Money-in-Politics Timeline to learn more.

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