By Sarah Lee
It is fitting that the third anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission fell on inauguration weekend. The case allowed new ways for citizens to participate in campaigns — a fact publicly derided by progressives and reformers yet privately taken advantage of by the candidates they support, including President Obama. Despite the liberal condemnation of the money Citizens United brought to campaigns, the decision has benefited the American voter.
Citizens United allowed corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in support of or opposition to a candidate. A case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals just weeks later, SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, held that organizations with a major purpose of making such independent expenditures must register as political action committees, but further that it infringed on the right of free speech to limit the source or size of contributions to such an independent expenditure-only PAC.
Taken together, the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org decisions allow for-profit corporations and unions to spend on political activity from their general treasuries, but this is the least important part of the opinion, because very few corporations do this. The cases’ real impact has been to allow individuals (and corporations and unions) to give as much as they want to groups that make independent expenditures in election campaigns (super-PACs), and they allow nonprofit membership organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Planned Parenthood, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, to expend money from their treasuries in support of or opposition to candidates — although such groups would have to register as PACs should this become their primary purpose.