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Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Five-Year Anniversary of Citizens United Decision

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2015-01-22

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, yesterday marked the 5-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In this sweeping opinion, on a divided 5 to 4 vote, the Court held that the First Amendment permitted corporations to spend freely from their treasuries to influence elections. As a result of Citizens United and the series of decisions that followed in its wake, we have witnessed wealthy, well-connected campaign donors and special interests unleash a deluge of cash in an effort to sway Federal, State, and local elections across our Nation.

    Let me be clear: I firmly believe that every voice should be heard in our country, and every perspective should have a seat at the Nation's policymaking table. However, Citizens United has led to a system that allows a privileged group of deep-pocketed donors and corporations to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens in an effort to buy and control every seat at the table.

    The numbers speak for themselves. During the last Presidential election, outside groups poured more than one billion dollars into Federal races, over three times the $338 million that outside groups spent in 2008. More than 93 percent of all super PAC donations in 2012 came in contributions of at least $10,000 from 3,318 donors, who make up 0.0011 percent of the U.S. population. Of that group, an elite class of 159 people each contributed at least $1 million--funding nearly 60 percent of all super PAC donations that year.

    We saw this trend continue during the recent midterm elections. Outside groups spent more than $560 million to influence 2014 Federal races--8 times the approximately $70 million spent in 2006, the last midterm election cycle before Citizens United. In 2014, we also saw a significant increase in political activity by tax-exempt ``dark money'' groups that do not publicly disclose their donors. Citizens United and its progeny have created a campaign finance system flush with secret cash and sorely lacking in transparency.

    The impact stretches from Congress to state capitols to city halls throughout the country. As in Federal campaigns, Citizens United has led to an explosion of outside spending at the State and local levels, with corporations and wealthy single spenders looking to play kingmaker, pouring cash into races for positions ranging from district attorney to city commissioner. One of the most startling examples last fall occurred in Richmond, CA, a city with a population of 107,000. Chevron--an energy company with more than $200 billion in annual revenue--spent approximately $3 million through campaign committees aimed at influencing the mayoral and city council races. That means Chevron spent at least $33 per voting-age resident in Richmond.

    While the influx of spending is well documented, I believe that the long- [[Page S410]] term damage to our political process from Citizens United is just beginning to reveal itself. Some scandals have already emerged, and there will doubtlessly be more stories of corruption and corrosive influence ahead. As a result, the public confidence in our government will continue to erode.

    I have worked with my colleagues on a number of solutions to address these concerns. Yesterday, several of these proposals were introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives. I strongly support my colleagues in their efforts to improve disclosure and create a more transparent campaign finance system, and I will continue my efforts to establish a public financing system for Congressional elections through the Fair Elections Now Act, which I plan to reintroduce soon.

    We also must continue to push for a constitutional amendment that would protect and restore the First Amendment by overturning Citizens United and empowering Congress and State legislatures to set reasonable, content neutral limitations on campaign spending. Last year, as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, I was proud to preside over a hearing and a vote on Senator Udall's Democracy for All amendment. A majority of the Senate voted in favor of the bill, but not enough to defeat a Republican filibuster. We will continue to pursue this amendment and work toward its ultimate ratification.

    As I said last year, supporting a constitutional amendment to reform our campaign finance system was not a decision I came to lightly. There is a very high bar for amending the Constitution and that is exactly the way it should be. In fact, Senator Udall's amendment was the only constitutional amendment that the Constitution Subcommittee approved during my time as chairman. But I believe it is necessary to clean up our campaign finance system once and for all. Only a constitutional amendment can fully undo the damage of Citizens United and ensure that elections are a contest of the best ideas--not just the ideas of multimillionaires and corporate titans.

    In the 5 years since Citizens United was decided, we have watched the corrosive influence of special interest money grow. It crosses the political spectrum, with wealthy donors vying for influence and streams of secret cash emerging from both the right and the left. Meanwhile, everyday Americans struggle for their voices to be heard amidst the endless ads blanketing the airwaves, so often financed by corporate interests.

    As Justice Rehnquist once noted, corporations are granted the advantages of perpetual life, property ownership, and limited liability ``to enhance [their] efficiency as an economic entity.'' But he went on to say that ``those properties, so beneficial in the economic sphere, pose special dangers in the political sphere.'' While some First Amendment protections have rightfully been extended beyond everyday Americans to corporations, Citizens United went too far. Living, breathing Americans face challenges and have concerns that are very different than those faced by corporations--and their resources pale in comparison.

    The special dangers of corporate influence in elections have never been more evident. The Supreme Court should fully examine the impact and effects of Citizens United and consider its damaging consequences as future cases involving campaign finance come before the Court. In the meantime, I will work with my colleagues to continue our legislative efforts to fix America's campaign finance system and overturn Citizens United so that elected officials listen to the everyday Americans who elected them--not just the wealthy donors and special interests that bankrolled their success.


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