Maybe because I have made the same point to my colleagues, I was impressed by a Washington Times report this week headlined “Decades-old law opened doors for big-money donors.”
The important words are “decades old.” The conventional wisdom is that the much-reviled Citizens United decision opened the way for sugar daddies Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson to spend megabucks furthering the candidacies of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, respectively. They do this through hefty donations to "super PACs," taking advantage of a federal appeals court decision that followed and cited Citizens United. Their largesse has inspired a generic lament about the outsize role wealthy individuals can play in elections.
But, as the Washington Times pointed out, wealthy individuals were able to make unlimited independent expenditures on political advertising long before Citizens United. In the 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court ruled that limits on independent election expenditures were unconstitutional. Friess and Andelson could have bankrolled ads favorable to their preferred candidates if Citizens United had never happened. They just would have had to eliminate the middleman and fund the ads themselves.
Strangely, according to the Washington Times, moguls didn’t take much advantage of the opportunity. Why not? “The fact that the wealthy businessmen now funding independent ads have long been permitted to do so, yet rarely did, indicates an extraordinary desire to remain behind the scenes.” The story quoted Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, who noted: “The thing with individuals buying an ad themselves is you’re putting yourself out there as the person behind it. You’d have to have a message saying, ‘This ad is brought to you by Bob Smith.’ ” But this isn’t a totally satisfying explanation because individuals who donate to super PACs are eventually outed, as Friess and Adelson were.