US law still bans foreign corporations from participating directly in elections. But after Citizens United, trade associations like API—whose influential members include foreign corporations—are free to spend as they wish, unburdened by disclosure requirements. And these groups have taken full advantage of their new freedoms. While other campaign committees, from labor unions to Super PACs, face strict transparency rules, trade associations enjoy unparalleled power to covertly manipulate elections using corporate money.
API-funded groups were a force behind the tidal wave of negative advertisements to hit Democrats in the midterms. Pennsylvania Representative Joe Sestak “voted for Pelosi’s job-killing cap-and-trade plan,” intoned one election-season TV ad from Americans for Tax Reform, one of several groups financed by API in 2010. Sestak’s vote for a bill to put a price on carbon pollution, the ad continued, constituted “a great big tax that would make utility bills skyrocket, gas prices soar.” Sestak lost his bid for the US Senate, and his Congressional seat was one of sixty-three taken by the Republicans.
The ads bankrolled by entities like API helped deliver one of the greatest midterm election upsets in American history. For the first time, outside spending groups eclipsed party spending. The young president, with his party’s ranks decimated and the House flipped into the hands of the far right, was forced to abandon much of his domestic agenda.
Perhaps the most profound aspect of the Democrats’ defeat that year: the window for confronting global warming all but closed. With extreme weather events convulsing the globe, 86 percent of incoming freshman Republicans signed an oil industry–sponsored pledge to oppose all climate regulation. As John Boehner lifted the House speaker’s gavel, any chance of passing climate legislation collapsed. In this way, the Democrats’ defeat was a resounding victory for the oil companies represented by API—and for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil.
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