What response do you get to that argument?
We generally get agreement, but I think there is some truth in the idea that everyone who's been elected to office has gone through this system. It's almost like a hazing. They have mastered it, they got through it, they got it down, they know the tricks, they've got their donors. They are reluctant to change it.
Isn't there also a sense that it's just not possible to get money out of politics, no matter what you do?
There's some of that. But I think [it's overblown]. Two years ago, before the Republicans took over the House, we had close to 200 cosponsors of the Fair Elections Now Act. We had Republican cosponsors and Democratic cosponsors. This is not something that just lives in the head of good-government groups.
There's a lot of confusion about what Citizens United did and didn't do, with a backlash recently from those who say it's being blamed for a lot of things, like super PACs, that actually have nothing to do with that particular decision.
What Citizens United did do is allow corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money. What Citizens United did not do is allow the Sheldon Adelsons of the world to give their $11 million checks. He still could have done that in 2008 -- it wouldn't have been to a super PAC, but maybe it was to a 527. But it's been a string of Supreme Court decisions that have loosened all the rules. There was a second decision [SpeechNow v. FEC] based on the Citizens United decision, and that made it easier for the Sheldon Adelsons of the world to give that money to Super PACs. So they could have done it before, but the SpeechNow federal court ruling after Citizens United made it easier.
The SpeechNow decision got rid of the $5,000 limit that had previously existed for individual contributions to independent groups.
But the limits for individual contributions to candidates still exist.
It's only independent groups. The only rule of super PACs is you can't coordinate with the candidate.
But super PACs still have to disclose their donors, right? I think a lot of people mix up the worry about secret money with the worry about corporate money.
They still have to disclose, but if I am a corporation and I give money to the Chamber [of Commerce] and the Chamber gives money to the Super PAC, that way I can hide the fact I have given.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 has written a good explainer on exactly this question, how and why Citizens United has brought us to this point. Because some people are out there saying, well, Sheldon Adelson could have done what he did before.
Right, large independent expenditures by wealthy individuals aren't new. What's happening with super PACs now is analogous to what was done by the Swift Boat Veterans or MoveOn in 2004, isn't it?
That's right, but there was not unlimited corporate money involved. The latest figures show that corporate money thus far has only been about 17 percent, so people are saying, see, this whole corporate nightmare is not coming to fruition. We think it's way too early to say that, because a lot could be going on through [groups like] the Chamber that's not disclosed, because disclosure rules are so thin. There are lots of ways to funnel things. Two, we're not in the general election yet. And three, we think one of worst things about Citizens United is that it cleared way for just the threat of spending. The idea that a wealthy corporation could spend a million dollars or even six figures, which in a congressional district is enough to swing a campaign -- that creates kind of not a great legislating climate. If you're a member of Congress, you're looking over your shoulder. You're not thinking, "How can I cast a vote in the best interest of my constituents?"