Richard L. Hasen

July 19, 2012


The new campaign finance order puts the corruption of the 1970s to shame.


“How does the brave new world of campaign financing created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision stack up against Watergate? The short answer is: Things are even worse now than they were then.

The 1974 scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon was all about illegal money secretly flowing to politicians. That’s still a danger, but these days, the biggest weakness of our campaign finance system is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. As Dan Eggen of the Washington Post put it, “there’s little need for furtive fundraising or secret handoffs of cash.” The rules increasingly allow people and corporations with great wealth to skew public policy toward their interests—without risking a jail time, or a fine, or any penalty at all. It’s an influence free-for-all.”

“In Watergate, illegal donations bought tremendous influence, but at a risk. Lifting the cloud of illegality has simply emboldened big donors. This is the point Justice Kennedy missed when he said that “independent” expenditures—money that goes to groups that help candidates get elected, rather than candidates themselves—doesn’t corrupt or create the appearance of corruption. And it’s the point Matt Bai missed in his New York Times Magazine article this week, by claiming that Citizens United did not make much difference to the world of campaign spending. Before the chain of events unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, if Sheldon Adelson tried to give $100 million to outside groups to support a presidential candidate, he would have faced a criminal investigation and potential charges. The big 527s from previous elections, including the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Americans Coming Together, faced hefty fines for trying to do illegally what super PACs can now do legally: specifically, setting up a group to take unlimited contributions to influence federal elections.”

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