Could Citizens United Help Foreign Billionaires Buy This Election? An FEC Commissioner Speaks Out

April 05, 2016


Ellen Weintraub

Federal Election Commissioner. Her recent piece for The New York Times is called "Taking On Citizens United"

The release of the Panama Papers comes amid growing concern about undisclosed campaign contributions here in the United States, so-called dark money. Now, some members of the Federal Election Commission are calling for greater enforcement of campaign finance regulations and a narrower interpretation of the Citizens United ruling, which opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns. We speak with FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, whose op-ed in The New York Times, "Taking On Citizens United," argues Americans deserve assurances from American corporations that they are not using the money of foreign shareholders to influence the country’s elections. She also calls for federal and state policymakers to ensure corporations are not being used as a front to allow foreign money to seep into U.S. elections. The FEC is the government watchdog tasked with keeping federal elections fair, but it has come to a virtual standstill since its three Democratic and three Republican members are in partisan gridlock.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The release of the Panama Papers comes amidst growing concern about undisclosed campaign contributions here in the United States, so-called dark money. The Washington Post reports, through the end of January, 680 corporations had given nearly $68 million to super PACs in this election cycle—12 percent of the $549 million raised by such groups. This figure does not include the untold amounts of dark money contributions to other groups that are not disclosed by the donor or the recipient.

Now some members of the Federal Election Commission, or FEC, are calling for greater enforcement of campaign finance regulations. FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub recently wrote a piece in The New York Times headlined "Taking On Citizens United." She says, quote, "The American people deserve assurances from American corporations that they are not using the money of foreign shareholders to influence our elections." Weintraub calls on—goes on to call for federal and state policymakers to ensure corporations are not being used as a front to allow foreign money to seep into U.S. elections. The FEC is the government watchdog tasked with keeping federal elections fair, but it’s come to a virtual standstill since its three Democratic and three Republican members are in partisan gridlock.

So, let’s go right now to Washington, D.C., where we are joined by the Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Commissioner Weintraub. Talk about your concerns in this election year.

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me.

Well, I have a variety of concerns this election year, as I’m sure a lot of Americans do, about the role of money in politics. There is, as you’ve noted, an increasing amount of dark money. We’re seeing more contributions coming from fewer donors and with less transparency than we ever have before. And there are a lot of ways that the Federal Election Commission could help to shed more light on this money to make sure that we’re not getting foreign money into our elections and to make sure that everyone is playing by the same set of fair, commonsense rules.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is this foreign money? How is it getting in?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Well, here’s the problem, Amy. I think that when Citizens United was handed down, a lot of people were somewhat taken aback by the notion of corporations having political opinions that they would need to express. But the court didn’t actually find that corporations are people like human beings, sentient beings with opinions of their own. And obviously corporations don’t get to vote. There are a lot of ways that corporations are different from human beings. What the court said, though, was that when human beings form together in corporations, when they gather together and use that legal framework, they don’t lose any of their constitutional rights. This is a view that the court elaborated on in the Hobby Lobby case, which involved religious freedom. And I think if there’s anything more counterintuitive than the notion of a corporation having political views, it’s got to be the notion of a corporation having religion. But again, the court acknowledged that corporations are a legal fiction. They’re there to protect the rights—to the extent that corporations have rights, they are there to protect the rights of the human beings that are behind them.

The question then needs to be raised: What happens when those human beings don’t actually have those rights? Associations of citizens forming together as corporations don’t lose their rights to express themselves, to use money in order to get their point of view across, to fund communications, to make contributions. But a lot of corporations have foreign shareholders. And those corporations are using the money that is owned by those foreign shareholders to intervene in elections. And that’s where we run the risk of foreign money coming into our elections.

And I think it can happen in one of two ways. You could have—if all one needs to do is to form a U.S. corporation in order to intervene in U.S. elections, then you could have foreign billionaires calling up a lawyer in Wilmington, Delaware, and saying, "Form me a corporation. I’ll transfer some—a few million dollars from my Cayman Island account, and you can spread it around through super PACs and other entities that are funding communications to advocate people’s election or defeat." I think a lot of people—most people, I would hope—would have a problem with that. Our elections are for U.S. citizens to participate in, and there’s a reason why we have a flat-out statutory ban on foreign nationals contributing in any way, shape or form, directly or indirectly, to our elections.

But there’s another problem that could arise, where foreign—a lot of big publicly held corporations have foreign shareholders. At what point and is there any threshold at which it’s appropriate for those corporations to be using their resources, which is in part owned by foreign nationals—in some cases perhaps, entirely owned by foreign nationals—in order to run communications and make contributions in our elections?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us, Commissioner Weintraub, specific examples?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Well, I don’t have any cases in front of me right now that raise this issue, but I do think that it is a problem that is out there. There’s no question that there are foreign shareholders in U.S. corporations. And if the FEC were to actually come to a deadlock on this issue, and some commissioners were to say, "As long as you form a U.S. corporation, you’re free to funnel foreign money into our elections," I think we would see a huge influx of money coming from overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: So how can this be dealt with? How can you deal with it at the Federal Election Commission?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Well, I think what we should do, and what I’m hoping to do, is to start a rulemaking process where we would gather expert testimony, where we would hear from the American people. Part of the reason that I wrote that op-ed was to try and jumpstart a national conversation on the role of corporate money in our elections and the role of foreign national money, potentially, in our elections. I think these are important issues that the American people would care about and would want to weigh in on and would want to have a voice in.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s actually happening at the FEC, at the Federal Election Commission—what it does, what’s it supposed to do and what it’s not doing now with this complete gridlock between the three Democrats and the three Republicans?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: It’s a big problem, Amy. We were designed to forge bipartisan compromise, and there is not a lot of compromise going on at the FEC these days. We have a responsibility to issue commonsense regulations, to help inform people how to comply with the laws, and to enforce those laws. And we’re just not seeing a lot of enforcement or a lot of rulemaking going on at the FEC. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Just last week, the lawyer for the Chamber of Commerce, hardly a rabble-rousing reform organization, was complaining that the FEC is not doing its job, is not issuing rules that people need in order to comply with the law. Most people out there really do want to comply with the law, but they understand there have to be rules, and they just want to know what they are. And we have not issued any substantive rules since Citizens United, interpreting that opinion. And that is a big problem for a lot of people who are just trying to comply with the law.

We recently had a slew of cases released arising out of the 2012 election cycle. It is far too late for us to be resolving cases out of 2012, but we could not get our colleagues to vote on these cases. These cases involved a number of people who were funneling money through LLCs to political causes with the intent, in three out of four of these cases, the specific intent, of hiding their identities. The American people have a right to know whose money is funding our elections. People have a lot of concerns about money in politics, and this is just one of them. But at a most basic level—eight out of nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed on this point—the American people deserve to know. We have a right to know who’s funding our elections. We have a right to know where that money is coming from. And if it’s being routed through corporations or LLCs or other vaguely named groups, then the people are denied the information they need to make informed choices in the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more—


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the petition, unusual petition, that you filed last year?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Well, one of my colleagues, Ann Ravel, and I were so frustrated at the complete inability to launch any rulemakings in the wake of Citizens United and other important decisions, that we actually tried to petition our own agency to launch a rulemaking process. We were told by our colleagues that we actually are not persons, under the law, for the purposes of launching a petition. Corporations are persons; commissioners maybe not so much. So that was a little bit disheartening.

But there were others outside who thought these issues were worth raising and filed a analogous petition with the commission. We received thousands of comments. The issues that we want to address, can constitutionally address, even under Citizens United, pertain to coordination between candidates and super PACs, coercion. I worry a lot when corporations are involved in politics. Who’s doing the political acting? And are corporations unfairly coercing their employees to be involved in political activities that may not reflect the employees’ own point of view? As I said, we need to do a much better job of disclosure of the political money. And there’s this issue of foreign nationals that I think has not been addressed since Citizens United opened the door to corporate money, which can be an opportunity for foreign money to come into our elections. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Your Republican counterparts on the commission questioned your own personhood?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Yeah, that wasn’t one of our best moments at the commission.


ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Well, they said, under the law, we are not legally entitled. When the law says any person can file a petition, they didn’t mean us. They didn’t mean members of the FEC or other members, other people who are part of the government. I don’t know. My children think I’m a person. My husband thinks I’m a person.


ELLEN WEINTRAUB: I tend to think I’m a person.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you all are deadlocked, Commissioner Weintraub, at the Federal Election Commission, what can regular people do in this country to deal with the concerns you’ve just expressed?

ELLEN WEINTRAUB: Well, I think people really are getting a lot more engaged in these issues. There is this fallacy in Washington that people do not care about money-in-politics issues. I think it could not be more untrue. I think we’re seeing it play out in this election cycle, where candidates on both sides of the aisle are making this a signature issue—money in politics and the undue influence of the very wealthy on not only who gets elected, but what policies get adopted after the election is over. And people are responding. People are turning out and showing their concern on this issue. I think people have to continue to raise this issue with their elected officials and to tell them that they really do care. We had—when we opened the door to comments, we had overwhelming responses from the public, thousands and thousands of comments that overwhelmingly supported our taking stronger action, providing more rules, providing clear guidance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us, Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.

And that does it for our show. We’re beginning our 100-city 20th anniversary tour. You can go to our website at I’ll be in Ithaca College April 6—that’s Wednesday; Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State University on the 8th; St. Louis, Columbia, Missouri and Kansas City on the 9th; Los Angeles Times Book Festival and Santa Barbara on the 10th; after that, in San Francisco at City Arts & Lectures on the 11th; Stanford University and then Santa Clara on the 12th; Santa Cruz on the 13th. Check out

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