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How Citizens United Makes Representatives Beholden in Washington, D.C.

Prior to Citizens United, campaign finance reform in Washington, D.C., had built steadily and aggressively from 1971 to 2002. In 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act required the disclosure of donors’ identities and the amounts they contributed. In 2002 came the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold Act after the bill’s primary sponsors, Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold.

For some people, the Citizens United case is an extremely regressive step in the path of campaign finance, as any and all groups can spend as much as they want without having to disclose their identities. For others, including prominent civil liberties groups, the case is an affirmation of free speech.

You may think that one positive effect of Citizens United is that it loosened the reins on campaign finance regulation so much that at least candidates can avoid illegal financial dealings. After all, if someone can support a political campaign without limit, and do so without being named, why not just use the PAC avenue to funnel money to the candidate of your choice?

Defying any logic, some candidates will still accept and spend money illegally, whether via embezzlement, unfair expenditure of public funds, or secret bribes taken in exchange for political influence.

And if we’re really being honest, the acceptance of nonpublic financial contributions from anybody quickly falls into an ethical gray area for a congressional candidate: “Do I do what’s right in my heart and for the citizens of my district, or should I do what those who gave me money want?” If you want to stay in Congress for years, even decades, the answer to that question becomes even murkier.

Money usually decides who wins an election. The more money you have in your coffers, the more people you can place on staff to devise strategy, manage a candidate’s message, and conduct critical data polling about the trends of the electorate. Transportation and accommodations while campaigning are more easily and comfortably provided.

More advertising can be placed on TV screens and front yards. More volunteers can be marshaled to help canvas district neighborhoods. Your general presence as a candidate increases dramatically.

Of course, the person with the most money isn’t always the best person to represent a state or a congressional district. And the person who accepts the most financial contributions very likely arrives in the halls of Congress indebted to certain interests who helped him get there.

But we’re not writing a fairytale here; we’re representing what actually happens. So until the next major reform to campaign finance occurs — until PACs are packed on ice, perhaps — this is the new reality of how someone becomes your senator or representative.

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