Citizens United: 5 years later

Photo by Tom Harris

Democracy works best when our representatives are focused on their constituents — not dialing for dollars from out-of-district mega-donors or courting favor from Super PACs and special interest groups. 

Thanks in large part to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the 2012 election was the most expensive in history, with just 32 Super PAC donors spending as much as the 3.7 million small donors to Mitt Romney and President Obama combined. Citizens United unleashed a tide of big money from mega-donors and Super PACs into our elections, threatening to drown out the voices of ordinary Texans.

With the dust settled after the midterm elections and our representatives and senators back in Washington and Austin, it’s clear that deep-pocketed donors played an outsize role in the 2014 elections as well. Here in Texas, outside spending reached $2,547,085 in Texas’ Congressional District 23, and one large donor in Texas contributed as much as the at least 8,767 small donors combined in the state’s congressional primaries, ranking Texas first place nationally in the ratio between large and small donors.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision, it’s clearer than ever that something must be done to protect our democracy and promote engagement among Texas’ historically disengaged electorate. While I support overturning Citizens United through a constitutional amendment — one that would make clear once and for all that corporations are not people, that money is not the same as political speech and that our elections are not for sale to the highest bidder — many good-government advocates have their sights set on a more realistic and immediate goal.

We can’t afford to wait until Citizens United is overturned to check the influence of powerful interests in our elections. That’s why we should amplify the voices of ordinary Texans through the Government by the People Act, which would create a system of incentives for small donors and matching funds for congressional candidates who rely on small donors.

This legislation contains key policies that would aim to shift the balance of power in our elections:

  • A $25 refundable tax credit for small contributions. This would encourage more citizens to make small contributions to candidates they support.
  • For candidates who promise to forgo large contributions, a publicly funded 6-to-1 match for small contributions of under $150 (the match can increase to 9-to-10 under some circumstances). That means a $150 contribution would be worth $1,050 to a candidate.
  • To qualify, candidates would need to demonstrate strong grassroots support by raising at least $50,000 from at least 1,000 in-state donors.
  • Participating candidates would not be allowed to accept contributions from PACs, except for newly created “People PACs” (small-donor committees that can only be funded with small contributions).

U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Al Green, Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston; Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Beto O’Rourke of El Paso; Filemon Vela of Brownsville; and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth have already come out in support of the Government by the People Act. But it’s time for the rest of the Texas delegation to support measures to restore our democracy and reinvigorate participation among the vast majority of us who can’t afford $1,000 political contributions.

Sara E. Smith

Staff attorney for Environment Texas