Three Ways Citizens United Helped Undermine Science Policy Debates

January 16, 2015 | 3:54 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Five years ago next week the Supreme Court issued a decision that would soon have major impacts on our political system.  In Citizens United v. FEC, the court ruled that spending limits violated free speech, opening the floodgates to vastly increased political spending by corporate interests.

As we know, money can equal influence and when funders’ goals don’t align with scientific understanding, we can get policy results that don’t rely on science—outcomes that may not be in the public’s interest.

But more than just the tremendous amounts of money now in our political system, Citizens United also increased the amount of secret money in our system, an outcome that undermines our democracy. The public deserves to know who is influencing public policy that affects all of us.

Overall, the Supreme Court decision helped paved the way for more dark money in political debates. Here are three science policy debates that have been affected by a large influx of often secret money working against the science.

1. Climate change and clean energy policies

Three fossil fuel industry groups increased their political spending by 25% between 2010 and 2012. Source: Common Cause's "Who's Government? Who's Voice?" report

Three fossil fuel industry groups increased their political spending by 25% between 2010 and 2012. Source: Common Cause’s “Who’s Government? Who’s Voice?” report

Political and corporate interference in policy debates around climate change predates the 2010 court decision by a long shot. The Citizens United decision did, however, up the ante.  As we’ve noted before on this blog, corporate interests have worked to defeat policy proposals that would have limited carbon emissions or promoted renewable energy.

A report released last week from Common Cause, “Whose Government? Whose Voice?” shows how Citizens United helped undermine these efforts to address climate change along with other policy debates. In the court decision’s wake, the fossil fuel industry created ‘social welfare’ groups that can lobby aggressively, but don’t need to disclose their donors. The result? A wave of undisclosed dollars pouring into state and local policy debates that work to defeat clean energy and climate policies. In the 2014 elections, the energy sector reportedly spent nearly $100 million, not including the dark money spending they aren’t required to disclose. Groups including the American Petroleum Institute (API), the American Energy Alliance (AEA), and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) increased their political spending by 25% from 2010 to 2012 and bought “issue ads” targeting lawmakers and their energy policies. These efforts, along with a newly formed Political Action Committee created by API, helped block state efforts around promoting renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions.

2. Soda taxes and sugar limits

Sugar, sugar, everywhere, and there is nothing else to drink. Increased public awareness of the health effects of sugar in recent years has led many cities around the country to propose policies that would address this growing public health threat. One such policy is a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. But since a soda tax stands to affect the beverage industry, we saw a tremendous influx of money pour into local policy debates from Richmond, California, to Telluride, Colorado.

An investigation from the Center for Public Integrity this week found that the soda industry, led by the American Beverage Association, whose members include PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company, hired a public relations firm to create industry front groups in cities with active soda tax debates. CPI reported that one resident of Richmond observed, “We didn’t have the manpower to fight against all of that messaging, they were so pervasive and so persuasive.”

3. Local hydraulic fracturing policies

With limited federal regulation of unconventional oil and gas development, states and towns are left to identify and enact policies to protect residents and provide adequate oversight of operations. Blindsided by the fast pace of development, many town have opted for bans or moratoria on drilling until they can collect enough data to make informed decisions about if and how development should occur. With the passage of several local moratoria, the oil and gas industry stepped up its game and became more involved in local debates across the country.

In October a leaked tape from the Western Energy Alliance revealed that industry representatives heard a presentation by Rick Berman, who runs a public relations firm for big industries facing PR problems, urging them to fund a secret campaign to undermine efforts to ban or regulate oil and gas development. In 2013, industry-affiliated groups in Colorado dumped more than $1 million into local ballot measures in four Colorado towns in 2013. Though the bans and moratoria carried in the final votes, industry groups continue to try and influence local debates on hydraulic fracturing from Texas to California.

Citizens United might not have allowed for such industry influence in local policy debates, but it certainly changed the game.

Citizens United is having negative impacts…now what?

The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates to increased political spending by the private sector, undermining the role of science in policy debates. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates to increased political spending by the private sector, undermining the role of science in policy debates. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In five years of post-Citizens United policy debates, it’s clear that the Supreme Court decision has expanded the influence of secret money on our political system—drowning out voices in favor of science-based policies, our health, and the public interest.

But there are solutions. We aren’t as broken as we think we are. The Center of Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists joined more than one hundred other groups—the largest collection of diverse groups ever aligned behind such an extensive set of money-in-politics policy solutions— in signing onto the “Unity Statement of Principles: Solutions to the Undue Influence of Money in Politics” in support of the need to address these negative impacts of the Supreme Court decision. The Unity Statement will be released next week to coincide with the decision’s anniversary on January 21.

We need greater disclosure of political activities for corporate entities, and many can help us get there. Congress can pass legislation and federal agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, can enact rules to address the problems. Shareholders, consumers and the public can pressure companies to better disclose their political activities. And companies themselves can be more responsible actors.

Next Wednesday, we will take part in a rally at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, asking the large business group to be a more responsible actor in a post-Citizens United world.  If you are in DC join us. If not, stay in the loop for other ways to help push back on the impacts of the court decision and help bring our democracy back to the people.