Most media commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the case "Citizens United vs. FEC" focused on President Obama's pointed accusation in his State of the Union address that the court ruling would expose U.S. elections to campaign spending by foreign corporations. Justice Samuel Alito silently mouthed the words "Not True" from his seat, provoking a storm of media "analysis." The facts of the case concerned whether a conservative group could advertise its documentary film about Hillary Clinton during her campaign for president without seeking the approval of the Federal Elections Commission. The Court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment overruled the portion of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that imposes restrictions on independent political expenditures.
A little noticed aspect of the case is its impact on nonprofits. It’s now clear that 501(c)(4) grassroots advocacy and lobby groups no longer have to disguise their candidate endorsements as issue ads. They are free to use their funds to endorse or oppose specific candidates during election years as long as their ads are produced independently of a candidate's campaign. Conservative groups have cheered the Court's decision, while labor unions like SEIU and liberal groups like MoveOn.org and the Alliance for Justice have attacked the ruling, claiming it will “open the floodgates” to corporate political spending.
But liberals and labor have never opposed the ruling as much as they pretend. The AFL-CIO actually wrote an amicus brief in support of Citizens United with federation president Rich Trumka claiming that unions are different from corporations because “Unions are democratically-controlled nonprofit membership organizations.” And, as a recent article in Mother Jones notes, it’s Big Labor—not Big Business—that’s taken advantage of the ruling, with the AFL-CIO and AFSCME spending millions in soft money ads attacking Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln and supporting her opponent. Liberal special interests are likely to take full advantage of the decision and will launch independent expenditure campaigns backing their favorite candidates in 2010. The June issue of the Capital Research Center newsletter Organization Trends looks in detail at how the Supreme Court decision will affect nonprofit groups.
Democrats in Congress continue to insist that the Citizens United ruling is equivalent to the Dred Scott decision. New York Senator Charles Schumer and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen have introduced the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that tries to use transparency to counteract the ruling. It would require nonprofit advocacy groups to disclose their top five corporate donors when they send out mass mailings during election periods.
The latest bizarre wrinkle in this story was reported yesterday in Politico. House Democrats are trying to ease passage of the DISCLOSE bill and win over conservative Democrats like North Carolina’s Heath Shuler by offering to exempt—wait for it—the National Rifle Association from coverage! An amendment provides that any nonprofit that’s more than a decade old with more than a million members in all 50 states and that raises less than 15 percent of its funding from corporations will be exempt from provisions of the act. Only the NRA would qualify, the Democrats said yesterday. Today they've changed their story. Reacting to outrage by liberals, they are saying that AARP and the Humane Society also qualify, writes Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein. What a hoot.
Some conservatives like Red State’s Erick Erickson complain that by accepting the Democrats' exemption the NRA is willing to let other conservative groups dangle in the wind. All this insider politics is apt to go nowhere, but it suggests one sorry fact: Interests trump ideas for politicians, and for nonprofits too.