During this year's midterm elections, many knew that the Republican Party would gain seats in Congress as well as in statewide races across the country. In response to the large amounts of money spent by corporations in this election cycle, the Democrats are now more determined than ever to address the issues caused by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The Citizens United-produced 2008 documentary Hillary: The Movie started the most recent debate over federal campaign finance provisions preventing corporations from spending money on political ads. A lower court ruled that the conservative nonprofit's anti-Hillary movie was not a documentary, as the filmmakers had claimed, but a political attack ad. As such, Hillary: The Movie was subject to laws governing such ads. But after the 2008 election cycle, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United.
The Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down a provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, which prevented unions or corporations from spending money to help elect or defeat a candidate for federal office except through a separately organized political action committee. The decision overruled part of the court's earlier decision in 2003's McConnell v. Federal Election Commission upholding the provision; it also overruled a 1990 decision, Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce, which upheld a state law prohibiting corporations from contributing to state election campaigns.
Now that the Republicans control the House, and as we gear up for the 2012 election cycle, I wonder how much work will be done on campaign finance reform and how much money corporations are willing to spend to determine who is elected in the future.
While our system needs to improve, the Citizens United decision to ignore two decades of Supreme Court rulings, including Buckley v. Valeo, a 60-year-old law that prevented corporations from spending money to influence federal elections, was not the kind of change the court should have made.
When it comes to the issues of free speech and the influence corporations will now have on elections, any debate must be centered on the facts instead of on emotions and far-reaching beliefs. The debate must continue about whether campaign finance laws restrict political speech or if some restrictions are needed in our political system.
After the Citizens United ruling, Congress immediately began working on new legislation. More than 40 bills addressing the Supreme Court ruling were introduced in the 111th Congress. The primary focus has been on the Disclose Act, which, according to The Washington Post, requires corporations, unions, and tax-exempt organizations that fund political advertisements to note who paid for their ads.
Currently, the amount of money that is spent by corporations and other organizations in order to influence American politics will continue to be a conversation had by many, but acted on by a few. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that the First Amendment rights of others are protected and that fair elections are carried out. One can question whether the latter can be done if meaningful campaign finance reform is not enacted.
In some cases, regardless of the amount of money spent, when it comes to elections, our democracy will remain a model for other countries. However, the Citizens United decision has put that in jeopardy. It is evident that there is no quick or simple solution, but failing to work toward some common tangible measures would only give additional power to corporations and take away power from the private citizen. Future Congresses cannot ignore this issue, and, as a result of the recent midterm election, the electorate must demand a more perfect system.