Assessing the Impact of Citizens United

The new Congress was recently sworn in, so I figured now would be a good time to look back on the midterm elections that created this Congress. Over at The Monkey Cage, John Sides is reporting what I had long suspected – the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United has not been that extensive.  According to Prof. Sides:

Some commentators feared that the Citizens United decision would lead to a flood of advertising by independent groups. This did not appear to happen. In U.S. Senate races, the fraction of advertisements between September 1 and October 20, 2010, that were sponsored by independent groups, as opposed to candidates or political parties, was no greater in 2010 than in 2008 (see here ). In U.S. House races, this fraction did increase, from 8% in 2008 to 14% in 2010, but even then advertisements from independent groups were still a very small fraction of the total. It is difficult to determine whether these advertisements had any impact on specific races. Independent groups typically targeted the most competitive races, where the candidates and parties would also be campaigning heavily. The advertisements sponsored by independent groups may have been drowned out amidst the general din of the more numerous advertisements from candidates and parties.

The largest impact of Citizens United was psychological, not fiscal.  By declaring corporations should be treated as persons, many liberals reacted incredibly negatively to the decision.  This outrage was fueled by the news media that predicted a tidal wave of new money that would flood political campaigns as a result of the decision.  President Obama also gave voice to this outrage when he criticized the Court to some of their faces during his State of the Union Address.

In reality, the Supreme Court has treated corporations as persons for a long time.  One of Chief Justice John Marshall’s most famous (and praised) opinions held that corporations have the right to make contracts and have those contracts honored the same as contracts entered into by natural persons.  In 1886, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can be treated as persons for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Even in the area of free speech, corporations have been treated as persons.  Why does Miller Lite have the right to claim their beer has more taste?  Because corporations have free speech rights, which include the right to make claims that are not objectively true.

If liberals want to channel their outrage at the Supreme Court’s corporate favortism, they should pay much more attention to the growing success that business interests have in arguing their cases before the Roberts Court.  And if liberals want to vent about a broken campaign finance system, they should be criticizing Buckley v. Valeo, not Citizens United. That was the case in which the Court declared that money was speech, and thus Congress could not limit campaign expenditures.  Limiting political contributions only gets you so far; limiting expenditures would be a much better solution to controlling the amount of money in politics.

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