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5 Years After Citizens United, Secret Money Floods Into U.S. Politics


Maybe you didn't realize it's an anniversary week. Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. That controversial case undid decades of campaign-finance law, and American politics continues to absorb ever-increasing sums of money. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the ruling on January 21, 2010.


JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY: The government cannot limit corporate expenditures - corporate independent expenditures.

OVERBY: With that, the Supreme Court majority uncorked a torrent of money going from wealthy donors to independent political groups, more than $500 million in last year's midterm elections, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. But Justice Kennedy's opinion had one big assumption, that donors' names would be out in the open.


KENNEDY: The resulting transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and different messages.

OVERBY: That assumption was wrong then, and it's wrong now. The Center for Responsive Politics counts nearly $120 million last cycle from secret donors, and a lot of money never gets counted. Citizens United was controversial from the get-go. President Obama attacked it just days after it was announced. He was giving his State of the Union address to Congress, with several Supreme Court justices sitting right below him.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.


OVERBY: Strong language, but soon enough, Obama and the Democrats plunged into the new world of superPACs and secret money political groups, just as the Republicans had. Liberal advocacy groups are as outraged now as they were five years ago, and perhaps better organized. Lisa Gilbert of the group Public Citizen spoke last week at a gathering of organizations working to roll back the effects of Citizens United.


LISA GILBERT: Americans and the public interest organizations that represent them understand that special interests are truly hijacking our elections. And the outrage they feel about this is really fueling a movement.

OVERBY: But conservatives see a different reality. Here's Brad Smith of the anti-regulation group Center for Competitive Politics earlier this month at a conference of the American Association of Law Schools.


BRAD SMITH: We do not have foreigners running our elections. We are not more oligarchical, right? We don't have these kinds of problems. Corporate money is not swamping the system, and elections are more competitive.

OVERBY: And as the debate goes on, Citizens United becomes more deeply entrenched in American politics. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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