Despite all the ruckus, the holding in Citizens United is actually quite narrow. All the Court decided was that an (effectively) absolute ban on
independent political expenditures by corporations could not survive First Amendment review, because nobody could believe that the speech that was being
"abridged" was speech that betrayed quid pro quo corruption. Citizens United is a non-profit corporation. Its desire was to fund the distribution of a film
about Hillary Clinton. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act seemed to forbid such funding, at least from the corporation's treasury. The Supreme Court had to
decide whether such an absolute ban should be permitted.
In the past, the Court had upheld limitations on political speech when they were necessary to avoid "corruption" or the "appearance of corruption." So the
question for the Court in Citizens United was whether every dollar spent by a corporation (independently of a campaign) to promote one political candidate
over another was an instance of "corruption."
The Court held -- and was right to hold -- that it wasn't. Not every "independent political expenditure" is evidence of a bribe or quid pro quo influence
peddling. Sometimes, believe it or not, an independent expenditure is just an independent expenditure. So if the only basis the Court has for upholding a
restriction on political speech is quid pro quo corruption, or the appearance of quid pro quo corruption, that ground is not solid enough to bear the
weight of a complete ban on independent expenditures by corporations or by anyone.
The first part of Dingell's bill is inconsistent with this principle. But interestingly, the second part is not -- or at least, is not necessarily. And if
effectively insulated from the constitutional taint of the first part, could provide a critical vehicle for reestablishing a power that Congress certainly
The second part of Dingell's bill simply limits contributions to so called "Super PACs," by requiring that they be subject to the same contribution caps
that any other PAC must obey. Crucially, the justification for this limit need have nothing to do with "quid pro quo" corruption.
As I've explained on these pages again
and again, the Framers of
our Constitution gave us a "Republic." By "a Republic," they meant a "representative democracy." And by "a representative democracy," they meant a
government that in the legislative branch at least was to be, as Federalist 52 describes it, "dependent upon the People alone."
In the 225 years since, Congress has evolved a different dependence -- a dependence not "upon the People alone" but increasingly, a dependence upon "the
funders" of campaigns as well.
But here's the obvious problem: "the Funders" are not "the People." As I've written again and again, .26 percent of America gives more than $200 to any
congressional candidate; .05 percent of America gives the maximum amount to any congressional campaign; .01 percent gives more than $10,000 in an election
cycle; through February, .000063 percent of America -- 196 citizens -- gave close to 80 percent of Super PAC contributions. And according to U.S. PIRG and Demos,
1,000 citizens of the United States (or so we assume) have given more than 94 percent of Super PAC contributions so far.