In January of 2010, the United States Supreme Court, in the spirit of free speech absolutism, issued its landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, marking a radical shift in campaign finance law. This ruling—or what some rightfully deem a display of judicial activism on the part of the Roberts Court and what President Obama warned would “open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in…elections” —effectively and surreptitiously overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and portions of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, struck down the corporate spending limits imposed by Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, and extended free speech rights to corporations. The purpose of this paper is to provide a brief historical overview of campaign finance law in the United States, outline the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, and to examine the post-Citizens United political landscape.
Campaign Finance in the United States
During the Gilded Age—a period that began in the 1870s wherein the United States experienced tremendous economic growth—affluent industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew W. Mellon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie exercised, owing in large part to their wealth, enormous influence over the direction of American politics. Though left unaddressed during the Gilded Age, the issue of corporate involvement in political affairs was eventually identified as a corrosive problem in President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 State of the Union address. In his address, Roosevelt asserted that corporate spending in federal elections had the potential to engender corruption—or the appearance thereof—and should consequently be prohibited. Not long after Roosevelt delivered the address, Congress passed the Tillman Act in 1907, which proscribed corporations from making direct contributions to federal candidates. Four decades later, Congress passed Taft-Harley Act, which barred independent expenditures—or money spent on behalf of a candidate in a fashion that is unassociated with the candidate himself.
It was not until 1971, when Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (which was later amended in 1974), that there began to be greater restrictions placed on campaign contributions and expenditures. The Federal Election Campaign Act, unlike previous campaign finance legislation, set explicit limits and disclosure requirements on campaign contributions and expenditures by political parties, individuals, and political action committees (otherwise known as “PACs”) and created and the Federal Election Commission as the chief organization responsible for enforcing the law.
These legislative measures were of course met with disapprobation from politicians. In 1976, two former senators, James L. Buckley and Eugene McCarthy, took issue with the Federal Election Campaign Act. The corollary of Buckley...