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Obama Was Right About Citizens United

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision has opened the door to foreign money in U.S. elections.

April 12, 2022

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In January 2010, just days after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United, President Obama stood before Congress to deliver his State of the Union address. Six justices sat berobed in a front row. “With all due deference to separation of powers,” he scolded, the decision “will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

As lawmakers applauded, Justice Samuel Alito angrily shook his head. Able lip readers noted he was saying, “Not true!”

Well, it’s been 12 years. A recent fine levied by the Federal Election Commission suggests that Obama was right — and that court rulings and administrative paralysis have made our elections ever more vulnerable.

Canadian steel tycoon Barry Zekelman has agreed to pay $975,000 to the FEC after steering corporate donations to a pro-Trump super PAC, in violation of a federal prohibition on foreign influence in U.S. elections.

Super PACs can receive unlimited funds, including from corporations, if the group’s spending is done “independently” of the candidate it supports. This would have been illegal before Citizens United.

Typically Zekelman’s largesse would have gone unnoticed and unpunished. But he was invited to dine with the president at Trump Hotel in thanks for his gift, and while there he inveigled for eight minutes, urging Trump to tighten tariffs against his competitors. Other tablemates included two shady businessmen working with Rudy Giuliani. The conversation was recorded (oops!) and released as part of the impeachment proceedings in 2019. (That’s Trump’s first impeachment — the one where he tried to extort Vladimir Zelensky into smearing Joe Biden in exchange for military aid against Russia. The insurrection was the second impeachment.)

When the New York Times contacted the Canadian businessman about the recording, he admitted he participated in the decision to donate to the super PAC. Federal law clearly forbids foreign nationals from engaging in such conversations.

All of which led to the recent fine. The billionaire will barely notice the dent in his bank account, of course. Apparently the FEC will also let him ask the super PAC to return the money he gave.

Aptly, the meal took place at the Trump Hotel, jammed as it was with fixers, lobbyists, and fundraisers. That’s the world the Supreme Court made. Campaign spending essentially has been deregulated. The law is in tatters. The Federal Election Commission is weak, deadlocked, and rarely able to act.

The Freedom to Vote: John Lewis Act would address some of this, by ending dark money in elections and requiring full disclosure of campaign spending. It passed the House and had a Senate majority — as did an earlier bill just focused on campaign finance — but was killed by a Republican filibuster, this time aided, as we know all too well, by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

The recent bill was best known for its protection of voting rights. That’s understandable, as the Big Lie of a “stolen” 2020 presidential election continues to sweep the states, threaten voters of color, and undermine integrity. It can be easy to forget how new, and how destructive, the current world of campaign cash can be as well.

Only occasionally do we learn about the deals cut, the tax loopholes claimed, and the favors traded. Polls show voters are savvy and angry. Corruption remains a sleeper issue in American politics. The campaign reform provisions were among the most popular in the recent bills, popular with Republicans and Democrats alike.

A previous Republican president identified the stakes. At an earlier moment of corruption and reform, President Theodore Roosevelt vowed, “Sooner or later, unless there is a readjustment, there will come a riotous, wicked, murderous day of atonement.” Now, that’s a tweet for the ages.