If money has an impact in U.S. elections, the race for the White House and other high offices may be determined by faceless donors pulling the strings from the shadows. Not exactly an image promoted by the Founding Fathers.
In January 2010's Citizens United vs. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively ended the restrictions on political contributions from the general funds of corporations and unions for independent electioneering.
The U.S. appeals court in Washington then used Citizens United to rule in SpeechNow.org vs. FEC that limits on individual contributions to groups making independent expenditures are unconstitutional.
The two rulings established a new order in how outside groups can affect elections, one pretty much without boundaries. If the national media's response to the new order has been muted, watchdog groups have been vocal and direct.
The OpenSecrets blog of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington says the Supreme Court ruling "allowed non-profit corporations under the Tax Code 501c to spend unlimited amounts of money running ... political advertisements while not revealing their donors." The blog said "conservative non-profit groups [have] spent $121 million without disclosing where the money came from."
The blog ticks off other results of Citizens United.
"The percentage of spending coming from groups that do not disclose their donors has risen from 1 percent to 47 percent since the 2006 midterm elections."
Spending by those secretive 501c non-profits "increased from zero percent of total spending by outside groups in 2006 to 42 percent in 2010."
OpenSecrets said the "amount of independent expenditure and electioneering communication spending by outside groups has quadrupled since 2006."
Meanwhile, 72 percent of "political advertising spending by outside groups in 2010 came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006."
The Center for Public Integrity, which is devoted to investigative journalism, reports 62 percent of the money raised by the two conservative groups "associated with former Bush adviser Karl Rove have come from mystery donors, a statistic that shows the increasingly important role being played by non-profits in a post-Citizens United political world."
Rove and a fellow former Bush adviser, Ed Gillespie, founded two groups in 2010, after the Citizens United ruling: American Crossroads is a super PAC, which has to report the sources of funds, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies is a non-profit organized under section 501c of the U.S. Tax Code, which doesn't have to say where its money originates.
The center reports the two groups raised $123 million from 2010 through the end of 2011, but the lion's share, $76.8 million, went to the non-profit.
The center said under law the Crossroads GPS is banned from having a political "primary purpose," but can spend up to 49 percent of its funds to pay for ads that attack political candidates by name and urge voters not to support them.
Crossroads GPS has fewer than 100 donors, all of them secret.
"Both Crossroads groups are allowed to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and other groups for political advertisements, thanks to changes in the country's campaign finance system in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and a lower court ruling called SpeechNow.org," the center reports.
Meanwhile, American Crossroads has swollen into the largest super PAC in the country, raising $28 million by the end of 2010 and $18.4 million last year, but has to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission.
President Obama has raised more than $191 million in contributions, the OpenSecrets blog said, more than twice as much as the $86.6 million raised by probable Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Obama and the Democrats are taking a beating in the "soft money" super PAC arena, the non-secret progeny of Citizens United.
After lecturing the Supreme Court justices in his State of the Union address in January 2010 -- the president specifically warned of foreign money entering the U.S. political system -- Obama "tacitly approved super PAC contributions in February, despite his continued opposition to unrestricted campaign money," Roll Call reported
But Republican-linked super PACs have raised $156.5 million in this cycle compared with $43.4 million collected by super PACs linked to Democrats, as reported by Political MoneyLine.
Worry over the super PAC disparity is causing some late nights in the White House, presidential aides have said.
Public Citizen reports Republican strategist Rove and both Crossroads groups "have announced plans to raise and spend $240 million in the 2012 elections. The [conservative oil billionaire] Koch brothers plan to spend $200 million [more]," setting a record.
Public Citizen President Robert Weissman, in calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling, said a "very small number of people and corporations are dominating independent election spending thus far for the 2012 elections," which promises to be record-setting.
Handed down only a year and a half ago, Citizens United has caused considerable uproar, with two Supreme Court justices calling for reconsideration, Montana demanding its own Citizens United exception and a few Democrats in Congress making noises about taking action.
Meanwhile, the 2012 election cycle rolls on.
In Citizens United, a narrow 5-4 majority of the justices overturned two Supreme Court precedents to decide corporations -- and unions -- had the same political rights as people -- eerily foreshadowing Romney's campaign declaration that "corporations are people too."
The restrictions swept away by the Supreme Court ruling had allowed corporations to set up a political action committees, but PACs are subject to restrictions and disclosures. PAC money has to come from the pockets of corporate executives -- not from the corporate treasury -- and the executives could only donate $2,500 every election cycle.
Writing for the conservative Supreme Court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said PAC rules are too restrictive and not allowing corporations to spend general fund money on politics is unconstitutional.
"When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought," he said. "This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves."
Justice John Paul Stevens, who would retire later in 2010, was among the liberal dissenters.
"The court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation," Stevens wrote. "The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution."