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Money Has the Right to Talk

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing recently on “Corporate Spending in American Elections after Citizens United.” After, that is, Citizens United v. FEC eliminated the federal ban on independent political advocacy by corporations.            

Note the emphasis on “corporate” spending, not “union” spending. If you want to know why the various proposals being made to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision all virtually ignore unions, you have to follow the money.

It’s true that Citizens United, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, is a nonprofit corporation. But the court’s ruling, which upholds the First Amendment and Citizens United’s right to make a documentary about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, is applicable to both corporations and unions.                    

Critics of this decision, including President Obama, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) keep talking about the supposed “danger” of huge corporate expenditures in our elections. When Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen (in conjunction with Schumer) announced a new legislative framework for restricting corporate expenditures, he claimed this legislation was necessary because the Citizens United decision “opens the floodgate to big corporate money that can drown out the voice of American citizens.”

So why isn’t he concerned about opening the floodgates of "big union money"? Because “big union money” goes almost exclusively to members of the Democratic Party in the form of direct contributions — and any money that those same unions now spend on independent political advocacy will also benefit the Democratic Party almost exclusively.

By culling data on contributions from the Federal Election Commission and state campaign finance agencies, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) and the National Institute on Money in State Politics have generated a list of the top national donors for the 2008 campaign cycle. The CRP’s OpenSecrets webpage lists the top 200 donors and claims that, “[w]hen powerful corporations or special interest groups find themselves with cash to spend on politics, they routinely spread it across the country in an attempt to curry favor with politicos ranging from tiny states' assembly members to the highest-profile U.S. senators.”

However, based on the data organized by these groups, a phrase that seems conspicuously absent from this statement is “labor unions.” Certainly labor unions should be included as “special interest groups,” but liberal activists don’t like including labor unions in that category.

If the heavy hitters who are spending predominantly — say 75 percent or more of their reported expenditures — on state ballot initiates are excluded, then five of the top 10 and an even dozen of the top 20 biggest contributors to candidates, parties and party PACs combined are labor unions, not corporations. The National Education Association is in first place and the Service Employees International comes in second. The head of the latter just happened to be tapped by President Obama for his “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.”

This group of the top 20 donors includes 16 donors that gave much more to the Democratic Party, Democratic candidates and Democratic PACs than to their Republican counterparts. In total, these contributors gave almost $3.50 to Democrats for every $1 donated to Republicans. The ratio of union contributions to Democrats versus Republicans is even more lopsided, favoring Democrats by about 10-to-1.

According to data covering the 10,000 top contributors for the 2008 election cycle, provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the combined contributions of all the transportation, general trade and public sector unions are slightly more than three times the combined contributions these groups report for donations from the stereotypically “big money” interests, like “Oil and Gas” and “Tobacco Companies and Tobacco Product Sales.”

For all of the concern shown for the poor, misinformed shareholders who supposedly must be protected from the evil decisions of their corporate overlords to spend money on political advocacy, no one seems concerned about the members of unions, particularly those members in states without right-to-work laws who have no choice but to belong to a union. Their union bosses spend members’ dues on politics in much larger amounts than individual corporations do. And most corporate PACs split their contributions between the two major political parties much more evenly than unions.

The way all of the legislative proposals that attempt to reverse the First Amendment are being structured make it appear that partisan politics may really be at the root of what is going on. These new restrictions are meant to silence the political speech of corporate entities’ which may disagree with the statist incumbents and liberal advocacy groups that inhabit Washington. It's just another sign of how politicos in Washington far too often mask rank political motivations behind claims of “good” public policy or “reform.”

With any luck, the American people won’t be fooled again -- and won’t support new “reforms” just as odious and pernicious as the restrictions on free speech that the McCain-Feingold law implemented in 2002.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org) and a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission. Robert Gordon, Jr. is a Senior Adviser for Strategic Outreach at The Heritage Foundation.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a former Justice Department official and contributor at National Review Online.