Citizens United

Corporate vs. Union Political Spending

In its January 2010 Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court turned election and political spending upside down. With the Court’s determination that “corporations are people too,” with free speech rights and other individual liberties, it eliminated the campaign spending restrictions that were put in place more than a century ago to stop corporations and other groups from exerting undue influence and spending millions of dollars and more in the electoral process.

It’s true that the Supreme Court decision also allows unions and other trade associations to spend unlimited dollars and form “Super PACs,” but union and association spending is dwarfed by the millions of dollars from corporations and the wealthy that are flooding into issue and candidate campaigns. And it’s all done in secret because Super PACs aren’t required to disclose their donors.

The 2010 midterm election campaign was the most expensive in U.S. history. Corporations alone spent $2 billion, with hundreds of millions more spent by “independent” groups that did not disclose their donors. Of the spending by the top ten outside groups in the 2010 elections, 89 percent came from corporate-backed and radical groups like American Crossroads. More still will be spent in 2012.

Political spending limits and restrictions had been in place for more than a century, first adopted by reformers in the “Gilded Age” in 1907 to stop the owners of America’s biggest banks and railroads from using their vast wealth to determine who was elected to Congress and the White House.

Those days are back. Here’s what the Citizens United decision did:

  • All spending limits have been lifted. Corporations, unions and associations can’t give money directly to the campaigns and can’t “coordinate” with the campaigns, but can spend as much as they want.
  • Corporations and other organizations can flood the public airwaves and electronic media with political advertisements up to Election Day. In the past, these groups were banned from airing political ads 30 days before a presidential primary and 60 days before the general election.
  • Corporations and other groups now can use all funds for political spending instead of relying only on voluntary contributions to a political action committee.

Elections in the United States aren't supposed to be for sale to the highest bidder. But the Citizens United decision has given the upper hand to corporations and the wealthy who have millions to spend, and it allows them to do so pretty much in total secrecy and in misleading ways.

CWA will continue to work with alliance partners like Common Cause to get corporate money out of politics and help make the American political process work for working families.