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Worse than Citizens United

Dec 14, 2015

This week, the Michigan House of Representatives is expected to take up a bill already passed by the Senate (SB 638) which has often been referred to as an attempt to enshrine the U.S. Supreme Court decision usually known as Citizens United into state law.

That’s a reference, of course, to the famous and controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission.

The nation’s highest court decided six years ago that there could be essentially no restrictions on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. That was hailed as a victory for free speech by some conservatives, and was greeted with dismay by those who wanted to try and limit the influence of money in politics.

We currently have the most aggressively partisan legislature I can remember, and this year the Republicans, who have large majorities in both houses, have been working overtime to gain extra partisan advantage, as in passing a law to eliminate straight-ticket voting.

I thought this so-called “Michigan Citizens’ United bill” was more symbolic than anything else, and perhaps a little extra statewide insurance in case the Supreme Court decision was ever overturned by a Constitutional amendment or future high court ruling.

But this weekend, Rich Robinson, who runs the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told me how wrong I was.

This bill, would, Robinson told me,

“eliminate a fundamental safeguard against corruption,” by essentially wiping out almost any barriers between a candidate for office and a SuperPAC, or Political Action Committee that may be prepared to spend millions in support of its aims.

Traditionally, such groups may spend on behalf of a candidate, but the candidate is not supposed to be involved with their efforts in any way. The idea has always been to prevent, say, the Enormous Steel Trust donating to Senate Candidate Jones with the implied or expressed clear understanding that if elected, Jones will vote against any restrictions on Big Steel.

The bill would take away those safeguards, Robinson told me. It would revamp the whole notion of an “independent expenditure” to make that virtually meaningless.

He said,

“This bill specifically articulates the permissibility of a candidate raising unlimited contributions for a SuperPAC that will spend its funds to support that candidate.”

The bill would allow a candidate and a SuperPAC to share legal counsel and even a communications consultant.

Now technically, it would still be against the rules for such a consultant to share information about the candidate’s campaign plans to direct how the PAC spent money on the candidate’s behalf – but that doesn’t mean that couldn’t happen with winks and nods.

Robinson has spent years working for peanuts, dedicating himself to transparency and accountability in politics. For the last six dismal years, it’s been a losing battle, from Citizens’ United to Governor Rick Snyder going back on a transparency pledge, and signing a bill allowing the sources of so-called “dark money” campaign contributions to be hidden from the public.

Now, if this bill becomes law, he told me it will be further corrosive of whatever integrity remains in state politics. His only hope is that the governor won’t sign it.

“I intend to let him know we’re watching,” he said. “Maybe it matters.”

We should find out soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.