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What Does Citizens United Mean?
WISCONSINREPORT.COM (11/09/2010) - Dan Rather Reports on HDNet takes an in depth look at the most controversial Supreme Court case of the year, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That's the case that granted corporations and unions more free speech rights in order to try to influence elections on their own, but not to donate more money to the candidates directly. Rather and his team try to move past the hype and take an in-depth look at what the case really meant while taking a look at the defeat of Senator Russ Feingold.
Ever since President Obama scolded the Court for its decision during his State of the Union address in January, some Democrats have blamed the case as part of the reason for this year's rightward political tilt. In this episode, Rather and his team try to move past the hype and take an in-depth look at what the case really meant, at its political context, and to ask what bigger problems the focus on Citizens United might be leaving unaddressed.
To see how the case has played out this year, "Dan Rather Reports" follows two of the most hotly contested races in the recent 2010 Midterm Elections. Reporting from the campaign trail of Senate campaign-finance reformer Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and from the small-town Ohio campaign of a promising Republican upstart named Jim Renacci.
Rather's team looks at how the influx of money from organizations based far away from each candidate's home state – organizations with their own strategies and agendas – are affecting our democracy.
To help viewers understand the issue of money in politics, Rather talks to Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken, who thinks the Court's refusal to allow campaign finance reform on free speech grounds is a dangerous precedent.
Rather also interviews former George W. Bush attorney Ben Ginsberg, who agrees that Citizens United has left American elections in a bad place – but thinks the solution is to get rid of all limits on money and speech in politics, allowing money to flow to candidates themselves and eliminating the need for third-party pressure campaigns.
"As long as you're going to restrict candidates and parties and what they can raise and have corporations and unions allowed to raise unlimited funds, you're gonna have a terrible imbalance," he claims.
Both lawyers argue that the Citizens United ruling was just one more step in the slow process of the Supreme Court making subtle changes that have chipped away at the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill of 2002 - one of the most ambitious attempts to change election law since Watergate in the early 70s.
And yet, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, co-author of that reform bill, was in the fight of his political life this year, and believes his opponent benefited greatly from the Citizens United decision.
"What's happened in this race is really obscene," said Feingold. "My opponent has 9 million dollars worth of ads of his own money, the most ads of any candidate in the country, but on top of that he has some 3 million dollars in ads from these interest groups from around the country, we don't even know who's funding them although we have a pretty good idea. I have none of those ads. So this is an attempt to buy this seat from outside of Wisconsin."
But, the Republican lawyer Ginsberg does point out to Rather that despite all the outcry about Citizens United, nothing has changed since the last election cycle when it comes to disclosure rules, only the nuance is what outside groups are allowed to say. Ginsberg claims that there's so much more activity this cycle simply because Republicans are fired up.
So, whether it is corporations buying these seats or just a change in the political tide that affected this election, it may never be known for certain. Feingold was a liberal Democrat running during a Republican landslide – he was outspent and lost. Jim Renacci of Ohio was a Republican running during a Republican landslide – he was outspent and won.
But everyone the Dan Rather people spoke to agrees that democracy works better when voters know from whose voices they're hearing, and everyone has agreed that in recent years, American elections have been hurt by outside groups taking over roles better filled by political parties and the candidates themselves.
"Dan Rather Reports" is taking a deeper look at these problems, and how one day they may be fixed. "Dan Rather Reports: Here Comes the Cash" premieres on HDNet, TONIGHT, November 9, 2010, at 7:00 p.m. CT with an encore at 10:00 p.m. CT.
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