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Supreme Court case rewrites campaign finance rules

By Damian Lyman

The 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC has led to the creation of organizations called superPacs, political action committees that back political candidates while simultaneously being able to accept unlimited donations from corporations.
Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert has been an unlikely whistleblower on the subject of superPacs, and he’s been using his show as a vehicle for educating the public on the otherwise under-reported issue.
“He is taking on a serious subject that many Americans find deadly dull and is educating the broader public on why it matters and what is at stake,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in a New York Times interview.

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Colbert plays an extreme amalgamation of conservative TV commentators Bill O Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck on his show. Colbert satirizes the ideas he’s actually against by facetiously championing them through his character.
The line between satire and reality was blurred when on Aug. 13, the Federal Election Committee OK’d the formation of Colbert’s superPac, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Outside of the FEC building in Washington after the hearing, Colbert didn’t procrastinate in using his press coverage to voice his message.
“I do not except limits on my free speech. But I do accept Visa MasterCard and American Express,” Colbert said. “$50 or less please, because then I don’t have to keep a record of who gave it to me,” Colbert told fans and press after the hearing.

Although Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow has not yet filed its required monthly donation disclosure, it had enough money to buy advertising time in Iowa last month during the week of the Ames Straw Poll.
If educating the public on the existence of SuperPACs was Colbert’s goal, a Google search of the word superPAC shows that he’s been largely successful.

Money as Speech: the New Standard

Citizens United v FEC was one of a handful of Supreme Court cases last year that worked toward complete deregulation of how campaign financing works during election cycles. After the Citizens United case, the case Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Committee further loosened restrictions on political financiers. With the Citizens United case as a precedent, Speechnow.org argued that the $5,000 per contributor spending limit that is imposed on political action committees, or PACs, was a limit of its members’ First Amendment rights, according to National Journal. The courts ruled in favor of Speechnow.org. This ruling led to the formation of independent expenditure-only groups, more commonly known as superPacs.
“Super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates,” reports OpenSecrets.com. The only caveats are that a superPAC, unlike a traditional PAC, must disclose contributions and cannot donate directly to a specific candidate.
“It seems like [the formation of superPACs] would favor conservatives, since they’re in with corporations,” former UH student Colin Cassady said. A glance at superPAC contribution disclosures reveals this sentiment to be largely correct.
Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney superPAC, is the best funded out of the 140 committees. As of September, it’s raised $12.2 million. Karl Rove’s superPAC, American Crossroads, has so far raised $6.6 million. At the top of the chart for liberals is Priorities USA Action, which has raised $3.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Corporations have feelings, too.

By 2050, Americans may all be singing Hail to the Chief to President Pepsi Co.
“By 2050, we hypothesized that corporations would be able to run for office. Our logic was that since the Supreme Court, having decided that corporations are people, would follow the slippery slope, and not only eventually allow corporations to vote, but to run for office,” said Jim Dator, director of the Hawaii Research Center for Future Studies.
“At the time we wrote the scenario (in 2006), these paragraphs were viewed as ridiculous — which is how any useful statement about the futures should appear,” Dator said. Without fail, however, times change, and what was scoffed at in 2006 now seems more likely than ever because of a recent landmark Supreme Court case.
Last year, in the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee, the Supreme Court declared that large corporations are within their legal rights to spend unlimited funds on politicians. The reasoning was that these expenditures are an extension of a corporation’s freedom of speech.
Given the current atmosphere of mistrust towards big business, the idea that corporations share many of our human rights likely strikes many as strange, if not outrageous. Mitt Romney learned this the hard way on the campaign trail.
“Corporations are people too, my friend,” Romney said during a rally at the recent Iowa State Fair. The comment was met with jeers from many of the attendees.
The idea that corporations have the same rights as people is traceable to an 1886 Supreme Court case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The Southern Pacific Railroad Company argued that it shouldn’t have to pay a property tax that human taxpayers didn’t have to pay, according to Cecil Adams’ column, The Straight Dope.
Yet as Adams points out, the court never actually decided that corporations were in fact people in their official ruling, although Chief Justice Morrison Waite said before the trial that it was the general consensus of the court.
“Then the court reporter, J.C. Bancroft Davis, stepped in… In a letter, Davis asked Waite whether he could include the latter’s courtroom comment — which would ordinarily never see print — in the headnotes. Waite gave an ambivalent response that Davis took as a yes. Eureka, instant landmark ruling.”
Law is a very strange thing.