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How Citizens United has transformed campaigns: An introduction to Big Sky, Big Money

About six months ago, we started a new project, a special collaboration with Frontline on PBS, to break through the noise around one key issue: the fallout from the Supreme Court's decision two years ago in a case called Citizens United.

The justices ruled that the government is not allowed to limit political spending by corporations and unions, which means this election cycle is being is fueled by more money than ever -- like, in the billions of dollars.

Part of the noise -- part of the reason it matters -- is the disagreement over how much all that money matters, how it affects the way you and I vote, and whether money corrupts the entire political process in this country. For one side of that disagreement, a lawyer named James Bopp.

"It doesn't corrupt the process," said Bopp. "It's necessary for the process. To communicate, you have to spend money, so you have to have money to communicate. See, and that's called speech."

Bopp's one of the main characters I met while I was away reporting this story for Frontline this summer. He's the guy behind the Citizens United ruling. He's been fighting limits on money in politics -- and mostly winning -- all over the country. And, he told me, not only does money not corrupt: "We need more spending," Bopp said.

Does that mean there's not enough information out there in American politics?

"Definitely," Bopp said. "If a third of the people in the United States cannot name the vice president of the United States, a majority of the people do not know who their congressman is, or who their senators are... no, that's not enough information. They need a lot more information."

So, more money, more information. That's one side. The side that won the Citizens United ruling, as it happens.

But obviously part of this noise is how many strong opinions there are about money in politics. Including from some of the people who use that money to do politics. I spent some time in Washington D.C., for this story, and wound up talking to a guy named Rodell Mollineau.

"How much is too much?" Mollineau said. "You know when you've got 15 or 16 people ponying up $2-$3-$4-$5-$10 million at a time, I don't think that is necessarily good for democracy."

Mollineau runs a liberal super PAC called American Bridge 21st Century, which is fed by the money that Citizens United allows, but he's not wild about it.

I was all over the place this summer reporting this Frontline piece: Montana, Colorado, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Indiana. We found an honestly amazing story about campaign finance -- one that cuts through all the noise, I promise you.

We're going to air a radio story every week this month as part of our televison collaboration with Frontline. The film is called "Big Sky, Big Money," about the dark secrets of campaign finance this election season. Mark your calendars: October 30. Me on television. It's gonna be a good one.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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(1) Only three states actually vote, and all the money is concentrated in those states. (I'm fortunate enough to live in a non-voting state, and haven't heard even one advertisement for the presidential "election".)

(2) Political advertising is the opposite of business advertising. Businesses want to attract new customers. Politicians want to repel all voters with brains, leaving only the perfectly reliable R-bots and D-bots. More money thus means more reliability among the bots in those three voting states. It has no effect in the non-voting and non-advertising states.

"'Definitely,' Bopp said. 'If a third of the people in the United States cannot name the vice president of the United States, a majority of the people do not know who their congressman is, or who their senators are... no, that's not enough information. They need a lot more information.'"

I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with this statement on its face. This doesn't indicate a lack of information, this shows an almost utter lack of attention people pay to these things. People don't know who the VP is? Have they been living under a rock for the last three years? They don't know who their congressmen and senators are? How is that a lack of information? That's called "pull your head out of your rear end and pay attention for crying out loud."

Ultimately, the whole argument around campaign finance reform, when posed by anti-speech interests such as PBS or any self-interested news outlet (who would like to be the only corporations allowed to speak on politics) ignores the fact that the mainstream press and government (incumbents and officials) have unfettered opportunity to fill the public square with their own viewpoint. Private interests and individuals - and challenger candidates - must purchase (with private sector money) what the former two institutions possess by their very existence.

In practice, this means that, as campaign finance restrictions have ratcheted down on speech, incumbency has benefited. According to expert Bradley Smith, "In 1996, every House incumbent who spent less than $500,000 won compared with only 3% of challengers who spent that little. However challengers who spent between $500,000 and $1 million won 40% of the time while challengers who spent more than $1 million won five of six races...The key spending variable is not incumbent spending, or the ratio of incumbent to challenger spending, but the absolute level of challenger spending...In other words, just as a challenger starts to become competitive, campaign spending limits choke off political competition." (See: http://bit.ly/VSifad)

And political competition - especially in the context of an America waking up and asking "Dude, where's my country?" - is the very last thing that those who feed at the government trough want. Stasis, and the steady accretion of power by Washington D.C., is necessary for both the taxpayer-funded gravy train and to attain the stated goals of left-wing professors (and no, I'm not just talking about that one). But not so fast. We still have this thing called the Constitution.

So in the wake of important court decisions from Buckley to Citizens United, someone, somewhere, decided to bring free speech to Montana in a big way. And in bringing resources, plaintiffs, and legal expertise together, these efforts have changed Montana from a place where Huey Long-style corruption and suppression of speech by handpicked government stooges has been the norm, to a place where informed voters have brought in a whole new era of government accountability. And to quote BTO, you ain't seen nothing yet.

I don't have a problem with huge campaign coffers, but I do think the way it's donated should be reformed. Currently, an individual can only give $2500 to a candidate per election. I think this should be determined by an individual's support of a source & not the source itself. For example, if I have $1 million as an individual & have the written support of 400 people to spend that on a disclosed beneficiary ($1 mil/400 = $2500), then that donation should be allowed.

The problem with corporate donations is that the money used was ultimately made off their customers and the labor of all their employees. The reality of the donation is that the decision for who and for what reason that money will be spent is made by the top brass. This completely bypasses the voice of the majority who made the money possible and who will none the less potentially be affected by policies influenced by the donation. To me, this is a blatant subversion of democracy.

To solve this, I propose a similar criteria used to legitimize large individual donations be applied to corporate campaign funding. The difference is that the written consent should be from employees within the same corp. A 2nd mandatory criteria should be that the supporting signatures should represent the corporate pay structure. If the corp. has 75% hourly, 24.75% salary (not CEO) and 0.25% CEOs, then the required supporting signatures from salary & CEOs (for the same $1 mill contribution) can be no greater than 99 & 1 signatures respectively. This leaves a mandatory minimum of 300 signatures from hourly employees required for the $1 mill corporate donation to be legal.

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