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Romney Unwittingly Explains Why Citizens United Was Wrong

By Ian Millhiser  

"Romney Unwittingly Explains Why Citizens United Was Wrong"

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At a forum on education policy on Tuesday morning, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched into an unexpected explanation of why big money should be kept out of our political system:

I just think that the most important aspect in being able to have a productive relationship between the teachers’ unions and the districts in the states that they are dealing with is that the person sitting across the table from them should not have received the largest campaign contributions from the teachers’ union itself. . . . The largest contributors to the Democratic Party are the teachers’ unions, the federal teachers unions, and so, if [the unions] can elect someone that person is supposed to be representing the public vis a vis the teachers’ union, but actually most of their money came from the teachers’ union. It’s an extraordinary conflict of interest. That’s something I think is a problem and should be addressed.

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Romney is right! When a wealthy individual or organization that has a stake in public policy is able to spend their vast fortunes influencing elections, that inevitably leads to corruption. No one should have any illusions that politicians who enjoy massive support from teachers’ unions are any less corruptible than those who enjoy the support of Republican casino billionaires.

Yet this problem cannot “be addressed,” as Romney suggests, because the Supreme Court declared in Citizens United v. FEC that wealthy corporations and unions have a right to spend unlimited sums of money to buy and sell elections. The core holding of Citizens United was that massive outside spending seeking to change the result of an election “do[es] not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Apparently, even Mitt Romney understands that this holding makes no sense.

If Romney is worried about the impact union donations can have on lawmakers’ behavior, than he should be absolutely outraged by corporate, millionaire and billionaire donations. Federal law permits workers to opt-out of union dues spent to influence elections, which means that union election spending comes from pooling small contributions from workers who did not exercise this legal right. Corporations, by contrast, are under no obligation to seek approval from their investors or other stakeholders before trying to buy an election.

Likewise, the relatively small contributions from workers that participate in their union’s political effort add up to only a small fraction of what wealthy GOP benefactors are able to spend to change the results of elections. The AFL-CIO is the nation’s largest coalition of unions, for example, and its total assets at the end of 2008 were just over $91 million. GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, by contrast, is worth just under $25 billion. So if the AFL-CIO chose to sell its building, liquidate its assets and dump every single dollar into the 2012 elections, it could still only muster less than 0.004 percent of the money just one right-wing billionaire brings to the table.

But, of course, Romney has made it very clear that he is not concerned by the impact of corporate or wealthy individuals’ donations on politicians. Romney promised to appoint more justices in the mold of the four most conservative justices on the Supreme Court — all of whom were in the majority in Citizens United. Similarly, Romney endorsed eliminating all limits on campaign donations so that Wall Street billionaires can write million-dollar checks directly to his campaign and not just to super PACs and other outside groups.

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