How corporations buy our government

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote in the Citizens United case that corporations could make unlimited political contributions to so-called super-PACs. Unlike candidate committees or political action committees (PACs), these organizations can accept any amount of money from donors without having to disclose the source of the contributions. Super-PAC contributions are the ultimate "black money" of American politics.

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The safeguard and rationale for allowing unlimited secret contributions to super-PACs is the stricture that they must operate strictly independently — hence the name, "independent expenditure committees." As outlined by regulations of the Federal Election Committee (FEC) there is to be a stout wall of separation between super-PACs and either candidates or parties. On its website, the FEC clearly states that super-PAC expenditures "may not be made in concert or cooperation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, the candidate's campaign or a political party."

Documents released as part of an investigation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) campaign against recall efforts directed against him and Republican state senators demonstrate that this supposed wall of separation is thinner than a Miley Cyrus costume. These documents show a clear pattern of coordination between the Walker campaign and richly funded super-PACs. An earlier investigation of Walker's political activities had led to the criminal conviction of three Walker aides, a political appointee and a major campaign contributor.

"The scope of the criminal scheme under investigation is expansive," special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, a 30-year career federal prosecutor, wrote in a Dec. 9 court filing. He said, "The evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities" during the recall campaign. In response to charges of political motivation, Schmitz has also said that he is a Republican who voted for Walker.

In one email, for example, Walker wrote to Karl Rove, the head of the super-PAC America's Crossroads, that his political strategist, R. J. Johnson, would be coordinating a joint effort: "Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities)."

Johnson also sent Walker an email making clear his role in coordinating independent expenditures, saying that the super-PAC Wisconsin Club for Growth's activities in the recall elections were overseen by "operative R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl, who coordinated spending through 12 different groups. Most spending by other groups were [sic] directly funded by grants from the Club." According to an affidavit filed in the case, Johnson flatly stated, "We own [the Club for Growth]."

The Wisconsin Club for Growth, which spent more than $9 million during the recall campaign, most of it funneled to other organizations, has defended its actions on the thinnest of grounds that it produced only "issue ads," not ads that explicitly advocated for or against candidates. Yet the ads clearly either supported Walker or attacked his opponents. Viewers did not need to be smacked over the head with a "vote for" or "vote against" tag line. Not surprisingly, Walker has followed the corporations' priority of quashing labor unions.

U.S. Federal District Judge Rudolph Randa recently halted the investigation in an opinion that essentially lauded efforts by super-PACS to circumvent rules on coordination with candidates and campaigns: "The (Wisconsin Club for Growth and its treasurer) have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted. Instead, it should be recognized as promoting political speech, an activity that is 'ingrained in our culture.'"

The special prosecutor has appealed this ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. If Randa's reasoning stands and becomes precedent elsewhere, it will topple the final barrier to the ability of corporations to buy our government. Not surprisingly, a few weeks after the Randa ruling, the multibillionaire Koch brothers indicated their intention to spend $290 million to shape the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections.

Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.