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How the “Citizens United” Ruling Paved the Way for This Abhorrent Tax Bill

A donor-friendly tax bill like this should be no surprise.

(Photo: Stevanovicigor / Getty Images)

On December 2, 2017, at around 1:30 am, the Senate passed the Republican tax reform bill. The bill, which would overhaul the nation’s tax code, was being altered and finalized as voting was occurring; hand written amendments lined many of the pages. To introduce a 429-page bill of this magnitude in the dead of night with no search function and covered with hastily scribbled alterations is a brazen travesty of democratic order. There is no precedent for it. It’s the exact type of thing Sen. John McCain railed against back in July when he said, “Congress must now return to regular order, hold hearings, receive input from members of both parties, and heed the recommendations of our nation’s governors.” Yet McCain voted “yes” early Saturday, alongside every Republican senator besides Sen. Bob Corker.

The bill itself is an obvious appeasement to the donor class framed as an across-the-board tax cut. Many Republicans outright admitted their donors were angry, and if this bill didn’t pass, their funds would dry up. The bill provides massive tax cuts for the rich and for corporations, while many middle- and low-income families will pay more; it puts graduate school entirely out of reach for millions of people, it repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which will result in an estimated 13 million fewer people with health insurance and will raise premiums. And it adds an estimated $1.7 trillion to the national debt, which is something Republicans seemed so concerned about before this bill was introduced.

This tax bill was not written to help the general populace of this country; it was crafted to appease those who run the show from behind the scenes: the donors and lobbyists. Our political system is largely run by corporations who donate hundreds of millions to political campaigns, and in turn, expect their donations to be paid back in friendly legislation — which often happens. This particular bill is more egregious than most, as the language is generally a bit more coded. Most politicians in the US on both sides of the aisle are beholden to the donors who helped them get to where they are. But it didn’t have to be this way.

In 2010, the Supreme Court had a chance, when it deliberated on Citizens United v. FEC, to stop corporate lobbying dead in its tracks and to make our political system more openly democratic. Instead, the court ruled: “Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.” This decision served to classify money as free speech and corporations as people, essentially handing our government over to big business. There is no doubt that this ruling paved the way for the donor-catered tax bill we saw pass the Senate Saturday morning, and we’ve likely only begun to see its devastating impact on the democratic process.

The Citizens United ruling and the v. FEC ruling of the same year, which removed a cap on individual contributions, paved the way for the “super PAC.” A super PAC is an “unaffiliated” political action committee that can raise enormous sums of money from individuals, unions and corporations for a political campaign. There is no cap on the amount of money super PACs can raise. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than $1.7 billion was raised by super PACs during the 2016 election cycle, and already more than $108 million has been raised for 2018 midterms.

These corporations aren’t handing over millions because of some philanthropic sense of duty: They’re buying legislation. We’ve seen this already with the agricultural lobby and the ridiculous ag-gag laws passed; we’ve seen it with big oil being brought in to consult on environmental policies; we’ve seen it time and time again with big pharma, including recently with its role in bolstering the opioid crisis. There are thousands more examples.

The way this bill was passed is inexcusable, but its content really shouldn’t be too surprising. In our current campaign finance system, if a senator loses their donors, then they lose the money they need to run a campaign. If they can’t run an effective campaign, they lose their job. This reality in no way excuses the passage of a bill of this particular knit, but it provides a needed context. Now lawmakers should absolutely be looking outside of the corporate sphere to raise funds. Sen. Bernie Sanders proved it’s possible to raise massive sums from small donations, but that requires a lot more work, and politicians are generally incremental creatures.

So, if you’re stunned at the prospect of a bill like this becoming law, look no further than the Citizens United ruling.