Remember the 2010 State of the Union address when President Obama spoke directly at the Supreme Court justices sitting in the front row and “lectured” them about their Citizens United decision?
“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections,” Obama told the justices, as the glare of the cameras focused on them. “Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.”
The court, by a 5-4 vote, had just declared that corporations are, in effect, people when it comes to First Amendment rights and, therefore, their “free speech” can’t be limited by campaign spending laws.
As Obama sternly expressed his displeasure and Democrats in the chamber rose to applaud him, the cameras caught Justice Samuel Alito, one of the five in the majority, shaking his head and mouthing the words, “Not true.”
Well, here we are barely two years later and already the impact of the Citizens United decision is being felt across the land. Those who were criticized for predicting that the decision would swamp election campaigns with even more wild special-interest spending have already been vindicated. That includes the four dissenting justices, who wrote a blistering dissent forecasting what would happen.
The “not true” Alito now looks like just another ivy-towered jurist who can’t fathom what his opinion might mean to the real world with which he is so painfully out of touch.
Just look at Iowa last week.
Political committees, unfettered by limits established by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, for instance, spent so much on attack ads during the last weeks before the caucuses that they actually swamped the efforts of the candidates themselves.
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Noted the Chicago Tribune: “The early activity heralded a transformation across the country in the first presidential cycle since a 2010 Supreme Court decision lifted the limits on individual and corporate donations to independent political organizations known as super PACs.”
According to the paper, the decision has rendered “quaintly obsolete the old system under which donations were strictly limited to candidates and party committees. If the trend continues, the 2012 presidential election will reverse more than a century of efforts to curb the influence of big money on politics.”
The effort to rid the system of big money, as former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the co-author with Sen. John McCain of the McCain-Feingold Act, used to point out, began with former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a fierce foe of corporate spending in elections.
Since the Supreme Court opened the doors, super PACs have been formed to support specific candidates, although they’re not supposed to be linked with the campaigns themselves. But this is yet another subterfuge in the never-ending spending binge that marks today’s campaigns. The super PACs raise and spend unlimited funds while the candidate claims to know nothing about the ads and, of course, is “powerless” to do anything about them. That’s what Mitt Romney claimed in Iowa, where millions were spent on his behalf to tear down Newt Gingrich.
Fred Wertheimer, president of a national campaign finance reform group, believes the super PACS are vehicles that will spread to Congress and lead us back to a system of pure legalized bribery.
In other words, with Iowa, we have just seen the beginning.
Someone should inform Justice Samuel Alito that his “not true” was the real falsehood.