Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Fred Wertheimer Headshot

Citizens United Decision Is the Problem, Not McCain-Feingold Law

Posted: Updated:

Paul Blumenthal does excellent reporting on campaign finance issues for Huffington Post and I appreciate his work.

I have to take exception, however, to some of the statements in a recent piece he wrote entitled, "Citizens United, McCain-Feingold Fueled Congress Shutdown Politics."

In this piece, the McCain-Feingold law and the Citizens United decision are treated as "a one-two punch" that helped empower extreme elements in the parties.

The McCain-Feingold law prohibited huge "soft money" contributions to the parties.

The Citizens United decision unleashed independent unlimited spending of unlimited contributions by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, and labor unions in federal elections.

The Blumenthal piece states that it is "the interaction between McCain-Feingold's blow to political parties and Citizens United's boost to independent groups that has really done the damage."

This political equivalency treatment between McCain-Feingold and Citizens United is incorrect.

Citizens United is a major cause of our current campaign finance problems, while McCain-Feingold remains an important and valuable reform to prevent government corruption.

The Blumenthal article reflects the view that McCain-Feingold dramatically weakened political parties by depriving them of "soft money" contributions.

But is it really a "blow to political parties" to stop them from soliciting and receiving huge corrupting contributions from influence-seeking corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals, as McCain-Feingold did?

Former members of Congress and national party officials who lived in the "soft money" system made clear how dangerous and damaging this system was for the country. They did so in testimony they submitted in the McConnell case that upheld the constitutionality of the soft money ban.

For example, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson (WY) said in support of the soft money ban, "I have seen firsthand how the current campaign financing system prostitutes ideas and ideals, demeans democracy, and debases debate."

The late former Republican Senator Warren Rudman (NH) said:

Individuals on both sides of the table recognize that larger donations effectively 'purchase' greater benefits for donors...Large soft money contributions in fact distort the legislative process. They affect what gets done and how it gets done. They affect whom Senators and House members see, whom they spend their time with, what input they get, and - make no mistake about it -- this money affects outcomes as well.

Former Democratic Senator Dale Bumpers (AR) said:

Our current campaign finance system is crass, unholy and destructive of democracy. People are dreaming if they think a democracy can survive when elected officials and the bills they consider are beholden to big donors. Currently, you can't find a better method of ensuring government help from time-to-time than to make significant soft money donations.

Former RNC Chairman and Republican Senator Bill Brock (TN) said:

[Soft money] contributions compromise our elected officials. When elected officials solicit these contributions from interests who almost always have matters pending before the Congress, these elected officials become at least psychologically beholden to those who contribute. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

Former DNC Chairman Don Fowler said:

Contributions of large sums of money to parties and campaigns undermine the integrity of the political process, create inequities in the system, and produce a privileged class of political actors.

The premise that the McCain-Feingold law has resulted in political parties that are financially deprived does not hold up. The two major political parties spent a combined $1.7 billion in the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Four years later, the parties spent more than $2 billion combined in the 2012 election cycle, an increase of almost 18 percent over their 2008 expenditures.

Meanwhile, Citizens United, decided in 2010, changed the landscape of American politics. It did so, however, at a time when the political parties and their candidates were raising and spending huge amounts of money.

Independent groups spent $338 million on federal elections in the 2008 election cycle, according to CRP. Four years later, post-Citizens United, these groups spent more than $1 billion on federal elections, a whopping increase in expenditures of almost 200 percent.

It is the explosive growth of outside spending attributable to the Citizens United decision which has changed the dynamics of federal elections.

Even with this dramatic growth, however, it is wrong to assume that parties and their candidates are being overwhelmed by outside spending groups.

Federal candidates and their parties spent $5.2 billion in the 2012 election cycle. This constituted 83 percent of the total expenditures made in the 2012 national elections, including more than $2 billion spent by the major parties combined, operating under the McCain-Feingold law. The parties are not starving for resources.

By comparison, outside groups spent about 17 percent of the total expenditures, or more than $1 billion.

The McCain-Feingold law prevents federal officeholders from selling government decisions in exchange for huge contributions to the parties, and prevents influence-seeking donors from buying government favors. The law protects the American people against corruption, as the Supreme Court recognized in the 2003 McConnell decision, and recognized again in 2010 when the Court in the RNC case reaffirmed the McConnell decision by a 6 to 3 vote.

The Citizens United decision has empowered a minute number of the wealthiest individuals in the country to buy undue influence over our elections and government decisions. The decision is a disaster for the American people and will not stand the test of time.

The McCain-Feingold law remains part of the solution to our campaign finance problems, not part of the problem.