As a community, as a state, and as a nation we can no longer afford the luxury of a do-nothing Congress, which spends 30 percent to 70 percent of its time raising campaign dollars and is intimidated by the threat of attack ads funded by vast corporate and individual wealth.
Dependent for their political lives on their funders and distracted from the people’s business by the fear engendered by so-called independent expenditures, it is no wonder we have already seen the new 113th Congress, like recent Congresses, practically paralyzed when it comes to their principal function, namely budgeting and spending our nation’s money.
It is fitting that inauguration day fell on the third anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In this now infamous ruling, the Supreme Court made new law by declaring that our Constitution gives billion and trillion-dollar corporations the right to spend unlimited sums to influence our elections. And it reasserted a holding in a previous decision, Buckley v. Valeo, that money is speech for purposes of the First Amendment. This is the decision that President Obama characterized in his 2010 State of the Union address as opening the “floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”
The unprecedented spending in the election that returned President Obama to office, proved that his assessment of Citizens United was accurate.
By most estimates, corporations and wealthy individuals spent more than $1 billion in so-called independent expenditures that the Supreme Court reasoned would “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Some of this money was funneled through nonprofit social welfare organizations and trade associations, which are not required to disclose their donors. This avenue for anonymous contributions debunks the Court’s presumption that disclosure of donors would prevent undue influence and corruption.
Long before the Citizens United decision we knew that money buys access and influence. This knowledge has been eroding our trust in government for some time. However, the unlimited flood of spending from corporate treasuries allowed by Citizens United is the straw that broke the camel’s back. It turns the right of free speech into a contest of who has the most money. If money is speech as the Court majority holds, then the wealthiest corporations and individuals will inevitably drown out the speech of the less wealthy.
The result is that members of Congress must not only spend more of their time raising ever larger amounts from big money donors for their re-election campaigns, but they must also be attentive to the threat of unlimited corporate and individual wealth being spent on attack ads against them.
Is there some way to restrain the concentrated economic power that has captured our government? Can we relieve our politicians from their dependency on their big money funders? Is there an intervention that would give us a chance to repair our democracy?
Our Constitution provides a mechanism to correct the errors of the Supreme Court. We can overturn Citizens United by a constitutional amendment that would prohibit corporations from using their vast wealth to influence our elections and establish that spending can be reasonably limited to ensure the right to be heard as well as the right to speak. And we can institute a robust system for the public financing of elections that would empower 100 percent of the adult population to adequately fund candidates and parties through small dollar contributions.
Grassroots support for measures to curb the corrupting influence of big money in our elections is building across the country. More than 350 cities, towns, and counties, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia have called for a constitutional amendment. Seven states, Hawaii, New Mexico, Vermont, Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey, acting through their legislatures have passed resolutions calling for an amendment. In Connecticut and Maryland majorities of the legislature signed letters to Congress calling for an amendment. The voters in Montana and Colorado, by nearly 3 to 1 margins, passed ballot initiatives supporting a constitutional amendment.
Here in Virginia, the grassroots group Northern Virginia Move To Amend has been building support in local jurisdictions for resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment, and this past September the Arlington County Board joined other counties around the nation in passing a resolution. Last spring this group polled the candidates running for City Council here in Falls Church on whether they would be in favor of such a resolution. And the group plans to spearhead efforts to petition the City Council to enact one.
If we are willing to do the work necessary to reform the way we fund our election campaigns, we will not only restore our trust in Congress, but we can also cure its paralysis.
Bob Crowe is member of Northern Virginia MoveToAmend.