A vigilant Washington citizenry must brace for an onslaught of super-PAC-driven attack ads as voters choose a president, governor and other elected officials in 2012, warns Congressman Jim McDermott.
THE relentless attack ads now playing in early presidential primary states preview what we can expect on Seattle-area airwaves in just a few months. Groups with feel-good names like “Restore Our Future” and “Winning Our Future” accounted for more than half of the $13 million in total political spending during the recent primary in South Carolina, trying to persuade voters to select the candidates they were promoting.
Who are these groups? They are the newly formed super PACs, which, thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), may spend unlimited funds to attack candidates for elective office.
That decision, a 5-4 ruling embraced by the court’s conservative justices, guaranteed corporations the same free-speech rights as people by gutting key provisions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law and green-lighting unlimited spending by corporations in American elections. Now, corporations anonymously can funnel unlimited money to super PACs through 501(c)(4) organizations, and the public audience that sees the super PAC-sponsored ads has no way of knowing who actually paid for them.
The notion that corporations have the same First Amendment speech protections as people deeply concerns me. Corporations are not people. They don’t attend our schools and breathe our air. Corporations cannot vote in our elections. Yet, in the Citizens United case, the court ruled that they have the same free-speech rights as you and I, despite the fact that large businesses can afford to buy expensive TV ads while most individuals cannot. The result is that concentrated wealth now known as the 1 percent has been given an even larger megaphone with which to drive the tone and content of our public debate.
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What is the solution? Waiting and hoping for the Supreme Court to reverse its decision cannot be the center of our strategy. In addition to seeking and supporting moderate judicial appointees, we must pursue fresh efforts to blunt the impacts of the Citizens United decision.
One possibility is a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling. Another is passage of legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act (“Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections”), which requires disclosure of the legal-but-abusive forms of secret super PAC financing. I strongly support both of these efforts.
As we mark the second anniversary of this troubling ruling, voters must be especially cognizant of the unattributed advertising and skyrocketing expenditures designed to sway our elections. Later this year, Washingtonians, for the first time, will have to navigate a super PAC-driven media onslaught as they select a president, governor and full slate of other national and state officials.
For now, the most powerful antidote to corporate influence in our elections is an informed and especially vigilant electorate.
Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, represents Washington state’s 7th District in the United States House of Representatives.