Joe Barton Fact Check on Citizens United

This morning on NPR, Congressman Joe Barton (R-Arlington/Ennis) made some statements on how the massive influx of corporate money because of the Citizens United decision might not be so bad after all.  The entire story is worth a listen, and can be found by going here to NPR’s website.

Here’s what he said, and let’s evaluate some of these claims.

“It’s not giving corporate money to the campaign committees or the candidate, it’s using their own money to say ‘Congressman Joe Barton is doing a good job’, ‘Please vote for Joe Barton in the upcoming election, paid for by…. uhhh, I don’t know… Texas Industries.'”

Barton is essentially correct.  Corporations cannot give directly to candidates or committees.  But the general rule in competitive campaigns for the last 20 or so years is that outside actors spend more money than the candidates themselves and that voters often don’t differentiate between candidate sponsored communications and outside groups running their ads. The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which Citizens United struck down key portions of, has alleviated some of that confusion in voters minds by requiring candidates to say who they are and that they approve that message.

The problem with outside money is that corporations don’t have to identify themselves when they’re running ads, except with some fine print at the bottom of a screen. You may have heard of MoveOn.org, but do you have any idea who gave them money? No, and it’s impossible to find out.  What about the very nice sounding “America’s Power” or “Americans for Balanced Energy Choices”– sounds nice until you find out they are front groups for the oil and coal lobby.  And here’s a telling foreshadowing of what this coming election season are really going to look like from Josh Harkinson:

In strident speech in Washington this morning, US Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue renewed his assault on the Obama agenda and pledged to fight the President’s allies in the 2010 elections. The Chamber will wage “the largest, most aggressive” campaign in it’s 100-year history, he said, to “highlight lawmakers and candidates who support a pro-jobs agenda, and hold accountable those who don’t.”

Lashing out out at Democrats’ leading initiatives, Donohue called health care legislation pending in Congress “a prescription for fiscal insolvency and eventual government takeover of American health care.” And he said the Waxman-Markey climate bill “would tie economic activity in knots and eliminate jobs from one end of the country to another.”

As I reported in Mother Jones‘ January/February issue, the Chamber of Commerce’s image as the voice of  American businesss is increasingly at odds with it’s right-wing political agenda and undemocratic leadership structure. Greenwire recently reported that a third of the Chamber’s massive budget–it spends upwards of $300,000 per day on lobbying–comes from a mere 19 supporters (it has long refused to name its backers or members).  “People have criticized us for helping industries or individual companies,” Donohue told the Wall Street Journal last year. “What the hell do you think we do? That’s our business!”

So, memo received:  the biggest and richest lobbying body representing corporate interests in the country is going to go run ads against every member of Congress who voted for things the Chamber of Commerce didn’t like.  And because those votes were incredibly partisan, it means that they will be running ads against, almost exclusively, Democrats.

The Supreme Court in their decision talked about the “chilling effect” that keeping corporate voices out of elections has – but how much more of a “chilling effect” is there when a member of Congress is scared to cast an important vote because s/he thinks an outside group will come in and run millions of dollars in campaign ads against them?

Of course, Joe Barton need not worry. These corporate interests would not be likely to run ad maligning Joe Barton, as he has received almost $17 million in campaign contributions during his time in Congress, over half of which has come from corporate PACs.  A favorite of the fossil fuel lobby, he has received $3 million from oil companies and electric utilities. And considering his strong voting record of “No” on both health care and cap and trade, he need not fear the Chamber of Commerce reaper.

Barton continues:

There are a whole bunch of major corporations in America that are headed by patriotic Democrats and I think in terms of how it impacts the street, it’s probably 50-50.

Time will tell is Barton is correct.  However, business has generally been more favorable to Republicans in terms of donations. This has begun to change in the past few years, as Democrats have recently been awash in corporate money (maybe due to their dealmaking with big insurance companies on health care reform and the coal and nuclear industries on the climate change bill? No… couldn’t be – *wink*)

What’s clear is that money will follow who’s in power.  And that’s not a partisan issue: that’s a threat to democracy.


By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.