Josh Hawley is at it again. Over a brief career in Washington, the elfin senator from Missouri—when he’s not egging on and then fleeing from insurrectionists—has attempted one pseudo-populist or culture-war gimmick after another to propel him to a higher level of celebrity than he currently enjoys. Alas, while his ideas have gained some prominence on the right, Hawley’s own star isn’t ascending at nearly the same rate. But he is nothing if not undaunted, and this week he unveiled a plan to “overturn Citizens United.” I’m putting that in scare quotes for a reason. Hawley’s latest legislative burlesque is wholly fake—and threadbare even by his gutter standards.
There are many—mainly on the left—who’d like to somehow overturn Citizens United v. FEC, the execrable 2010 decision that unleashed a tidal wave of funny money into our politics and demonstrated that the Supreme Court didn’t need to have a 6–3 conservative tilt to cock up the entire country. It would be great if we could pass a law and set things right, but here’s the rub: Congress can’t fix it, sorry! As MSNBC’s Jordan Rubin explained, overturning the decision would require one of two unlikely events: the Supreme Court choosing to reverse itself or the successful enactment of a constitutional amendment. “That’s because the 2010 case was decided on constitutional grounds—under the First Amendment—as opposed to statutory grounds,” writes Rubin.
The fact that Hawley, even with the assent of Congress and the president, literally cannot “overturn” Citizens United makes this matter done and dusted. But it’s still worth prodding his proposal to assess the full measure of his ambitions—which turn out to be appropriately deceptive. You see, for all of Hawley’s bluster, he’s only targeting one sliver of the boodle that the Supreme Court’s allowed to come sluicing through the gates: corporate money. For all this posturing, Hawley would leave unchecked the flood of dark money.
If you’re authentically aggrieved by the Citizens United decision, this is where the profound misrule lies: Political nonprofits—mainly 501(c)(4)s—can accept unlimited donations and don’t have to disclose their donors, even when the nonprofit then sends the money to super PACs, which do have to disclose donors. As Open Secrets has documented, contributions from shell companies and dark money sources have ballooned in the last two election cycles, with more than $612 million flowing into federal political committees in 2022. Rubin reports that “the nonprofit One Nation donated $53.5 million to the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, the largest political contribution of any organization that election cycle.”
“Safe to say,” Rubin concludes, “leaving nonprofits out of the equation wouldn’t solve the dark money problem.” But this is what Hawley’s proposal pointedly does.
It really doesn’t take a ton of spelunking to get to the bottom of what Hawley’s trying to do with this sudden stance against Citizens United: This is just a new layer of the senator’s song and dance against what he terms “woke” corporations, and of the broader project of conservative nationalism that TNR contributing editor Osita Nwanevu characterized as “Trumpism for intellectuals,” in The New Yorker back in July 2019.
TNR’s Matt Ford saw a similar level of playacting in a previous Hawley proposal to belatedly jump into the right’s war against Disney with a stunt bill purportedly aimed at reducing the value of the entertainment conglomerate’s valuable copyrights. As Ford pointed out, however, not only was that proposal extremely unlikely to pass constitutional muster, it would very likely “lead to taxpayers giving a multibillion-dollar payout to Disney for its property losses” if it was successfully enacted.
It’s extremely unlikely that Hawley doesn’t understand the fatal flaws in the ideas he’s going to such flamboyant lengths to promote. The senator, after all, has degrees from the two schools that are locked in tight competition to be America’s Slytherin—Stanford University and Yale Law. As Rubin notes, Hawley also used to clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, so surely he understands the difference between constitutional and statutory grounds.
But even if Hawley’s anti–Citizens United measure is a complete joke, he’s probably getting exactly what he wants out of the effort: favorable headlines from credulous media outlets such as Real Clear Politics, which announced “Sen. Josh Hawley To Introduce Bill Reversing Citizens United,” or Above the Law, which took the cake with “Unlikeliest Of Heroes Josh Hawley Takes On Mitch McConnell To Get Big Corporate Money Out Of Politics.” Even some liberals fell for it: a DailyKos poster titled their blog post, “I agree with … Josh Hawley?” (Don’t worry, “Greg from Vermont,” you really don’t!)
The political press has been on a recent tear of ignominy lately. Media Matters’ Matt Gertz caught multiple outlets selling the GOP’s recent proposal to pay for the proposed Israeli aid package with deficit-ballooning cuts to the IRS as an “offset” this week, in another example of a framing that could have been avoided if anyone bothered to acquire some basic literacy about the legislative process and operating budgets. That Hawley’s sham of a bill has no chance to “overturn Citizens United” doesn’t take a deep dive into the particulars to figure out. To be honest, many of the ruses perpetrated by George Santos, who survived an expulsion vote on Wednesday, were a lot harder to penetrate than Hawley’s latest caper, if only anyone would bother to try.
This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.