It may surprise you to learn that the AFL-CIO joined forces with the GOP-linked Citizens United to overturn campaign finance law as we know it.
Citizens United (CU) is a nonprofit advocacy group headed by veteran GOP operative David Bossie. In 2008, CU released “Hillary: The Movie,” a “documentary” so blatantly one-sided and hostile that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) chose to regulate it as a feature-length attack ad.
CU wanted to advertise the film and distribute it to cable customers on demand, but the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) refused on the grounds that the self-proclaimed documentary referenced Hillary Clinton, who was a candidate for federal office at the time.
Last Thursday, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United against the FEC. The court found that corporations (and by extension, unions) have the same First Amendment rights as individuals when it comes to buying political advertising. Experts expect the ruling to open the door to tens of millions of dollars in independent political expenditures.
Corporations and unions still won’t be allowed to donate directly to campaigns, but they will be allowed to spend freely to influence voters.
Citizens United, the AFL-CIO, and their allies argued that the status quo violated their right to free speech. They say that if individuals have the right to express their political opinions, groups of people should also be allowed to do so without interference from the FEC. The Court agreed.
The AFL-CIO has obvious practical reasons to want to ease restrictions on political advertising. The AFL-CIO proper spent over $1.3 million to influence federal politics in 2008, according to the database Open Secrets. Its affilated unions spent even more.
The American Federation of State County and Muncipal Employees (AFSCME), an AFL-CIO affiliate, has spent over $41 million to influence federal elections since 1990. AFSCME ranks #2 on Open Secrets’ list of “heavy hitters,” second only to AT&T. Another AFL-CIO affiliate, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has spent over $31 million on federal politicking since 1990.
It’s unclear who will ultimately benefit from the ruling. Corporations and unions already spend tens of millions of dollars to influence the political process. It remains to be seen whether the new rules will draw more money into politics, or just redistribute the vast sums that are already being spent. One potential upside for proponents of transparency: If corporations can buy their own ads, maybe they’ll be less interested in forming shadowy front groups to do it for them.
The AFL-CIO has made common cause with corporations today, but what happens when the former allies resume their mutual opposition? Unions have deep pockets, but can they compete with corporate America in a no-holds-barred spending frenzy?
The AFL-CIO may look forward to attacking Blue Dogs and Republicans in the midterm elections. However, some analysts worry that the ruling introduces a whole new set of potential enemies. Foreign nationals have historically been prohibited from running ads to influence American elections. But Aaron Mehta and Josh Israel of the Center for Public Integrity argue that Citizens United could create a novel opportunity for corporations owned by foreign governments to influence American elections. On its face, the decision applies to all corporations, irrespective of who owns them.
A steel company owned by the Chinese government might now have the right to flood the airways with issue ads on U.S. trade policy. (Ironically, Citizens United’s grassroots lobbying arm calls itself the American Sovereignty Project.)
Citizens United will probably benefit organized labor in the short term. The mid-term elections are coming up fast, and labor wants to spend big to defend the Democratic majority in Congress. But the decision carries long-term risks that may ultimately outweigh the temporary tactical advantages.