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How PACs and Special Interests Work in Washington, D.C.

The campaign finance game in Washington, D.C., changed dramatically in 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the expenditure of money as a form of free speech.

This ruling lets independent organizations called Political Action Committees (PACs), which are “uncoordinated” with an election campaign, raise and spend as much money as they want on behalf of the candidate of their choice. As a result, major corporations, labor unions, and extremely wealthy individuals — the three groups with the kind of financial firepower to singlehandedly catapult a candidate into office — can form groups that spend money with impunity.

The Citizens United judgment changed the election landscape, as evidenced by the results of the 2010 midterm elections, which saw Republicans — many of them members of the Republican Party’s new Tea Party wing — retake the majority of the House of Representatives. Democrats also saw their majority decrease dramatically in the Senate.

Don’t assume that Citizens United is a strictly partisan affair, however: Labor unions, traditionally supportive of Democratic candidates, were aggressive in forming PACs in preparation for the 2012 presidential election. In fact, Citizens United has been publicly opposed by — and supported by — both Democrats and Republicans.

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