In a ruling that portends the unwinding of multiple campaign finance laws, a DC appeals court using the Citizens United ruling opened up certain independent expenditure committees to unlimited spending:

On the one hand there are federal political action committees (PACs) — folks getting together to raise money for and contribute money directly to political candidates. There are contribution limits in terms of how much they can raise per-source ($5000, whether it’s a person, another PAC or party committee) and in terms of how much each can directly contribute to a candidate — $5000.

On the other hand are independent expenditures — the right of an individual to spend unlimited sums of her own money to speak (and advertise) in support of a candidate’s election, so long as these communications are truly independent from and not coordinated with the campaign. It’s these communications which the Citizens United decision have allowed corporations to make on the federal level as well.

But that’s an individual right. If a group of people wanted to form a committee together to finance independent expenditures, and not to make direct contributions to candidates, should the limits which apply to PACs apply to them?

Today, a unanimous en banc opinion of the DC Circuit (i.e., all nine judges) held that such contribution limits cannot apply to such speech-only committees, though registration and disclosure requirements do.

I think we can analogize this to what corporate funders and PACs can do at the state level here in California. Corporations have purchased two slots on the June ballot – PG&E wants to make it virtually impossible for municipalities to start public power utilities, and Mercury Insurance wants to place a surcharge on drivers who allow their policies to lapse for any reason. They’ve not only spent millions to get on the ballot by usinng paid signature gatherers, but PG&E plans to spend $35 million dollars in ratepayer money to get it passed. This routine attempt to buy elections can now be ported over to federal candidates, as groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures.

In a separate ruling, a three-judge panel ruled that party committees could not seek unlimited contributions from individuals. That was traditionally known as “soft money,” and the McCain-Feingold closure of that loophole has thus far held up. But basically, individuals and corporations can band together to essentially replicate that soft money in an independent expenditure, and while it couldn’t be coordinated with candidate or party activities, it could still prove formidable.

We haven’t heard much from Congress since the initial flush of legislation proposed to deal with the Citizens United ruling. They’d better get into the game here, while a few campaign finance rules still exist.