As a 2011 Congressional Research Service report notes, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC and a lower court’s decision in SpeechNow.org v. FEC constitute “arguably represent the most fundamental changes to campaign finance law in decades.” In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said that the Supreme Court ruling would “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections.” The issue remains highly contentious and the consequences are continuing to unfold.
During the 111th Congress, the U.S. House and Senate considered legislation to re-regulate various aspects of campaign finance. Though the House passed the DISCLOSE Act — a bill to ban certain types of campaign contributions and to facilitate the public disclosure of all contributions — the Senate declined to pass a companion bill.
“As a consequence of Citizens United, corporations and unions are now free to use their treasury funds to air political advertisements explicitly calling for election or defeat of federal or state candidates (independent expenditures) or advertisements that refer to those candidates during pre-election periods, but do not necessarily explicitly call for their election or defeat (electioneering communications). Previously, such advertising would generally have had to be financed through voluntary contributions raised by PACs affiliated with unions or corporations.”
The 2010 U.S. Court of Appeals decision in SpeechNow.org means that “contributions to PACs that make only independentexpenditures — but not contributions — could not be constitutionally limited. As a result, theseentities, commonly called super PACs, may accept previously prohibited amounts and sources offunds, including large corporate, union, or individual contributions used to advocate for electionor defeat of federal candidates.”
Despite these changes, it should be noted that “pre-existing limits on contributions to campaigns, parties, and PACs generally remain in effect. Despite Citizens United’s implications for independent expenditures and electioneering communications, the ruling did not affect the prohibition on corporate and union treasury contributions in federal campaigns.”
For the 2011-2012 year, an individual may contribute as much as $2,500 to a candidate (once for the primary and then again for the general election), $5000 to a multicandidate PAC, $10,000 to a state or local party committee, and $30,800 to a national party committee per election.
“Corporations and unions are still banned from making contributions in federal elections. PACs affiliated with, but legally separate from, those corporations and unions may continue to contribute to candidates, parties, and other PACs.”
The report’s author notes: “Unless meeting [certain] criteria for disclosure, corporate or union funds given to an intermediary (such as a trade association) do not have to be publicly reported. Accordingly, the total sources or amounts of corporate or union funds in federal elections remains unknown.”