Expanding Democracy by Amending the Constitution to Get Money Out of Politics

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Ninety-five years ago today, we added an amendment to the U.S. Constitution saying that women have a right to vote in our elections. While today women's suffrage seems like a no-brainer to everyone -- except maybe Ann Coulter -- it was not an inevitability that simply fell into place. Women were not "given" the right to vote. It was an amendment that women fought for, tooth and nail, for more than 70 years in every state across the country

In a 2010 piece about the suffrage movement, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote that "behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time." It was a painstaking process of organizing, state by state, that ultimately led to the 19th Amendment.

It's not a fast process to amend the Constitution -- just ask Susan B. Anthony, who organized for decades and didn't live to see the passage of the women's suffrage amendment. It shouldn't be easy to change our country's guiding document. But we have a history of passing amendments, when necessary, to make our democracy more inclusive, and often to correct serious harm done by the Supreme Court. The women's suffrage amendment overturned a 1875 decision that held women didn't have a right to vote. In all, seven of the 17 constitutional amendments adopted since the Bill of Rights have reversed damaging Supreme Court decisions that threatened popular democracy.

Today we're facing another serious threat to our democracy: Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United. 

In the wake of decisions allowing unlimited spending to influence elections, money has inundated our political system like never before. 2014 was the most expensive midterm in history, but with fewer donors than in past elections. The 2016 presidential election is already on its way toward eclipsing all previous records. We're seeing more and more money from fewer and fewer donors, and it's taking a real toll on the functioning of our system.

There is a nationwide movement pushing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and take our political process back from the tremendous influence of big corporations and moneyed interests. Like the women's suffrage movement, it's a slow process of building support city by city, state by state, one conversation at a time. So far 16 states and 650 cities and towns have gone on record in support of an amendment, and momentum continues to build

The campaign for an amendment, like the Democracy For All amendment being considered in Congress, is grounded in simple ideas: we should be able to set reasonable limits on money in elections. The size of your wallet shouldn't determine the strength of your voice. Our elected officials should be paying attention to the needs and priorities of everyday Americans rather than following a political agenda set by wealthy special interests.

On Women's Equality Day we celebrate the expansion of political rights almost a century ago. It was an expansion based on the recognition that our political system is for all of us. But as the foundation of representative democracy is threatened by an overwhelming influx of money in elections -- to the point where all of us can no longer be heard in our democracy -- we are called to amend the Constitution again.

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2016 Candidates and the Fight to Get Big Money Out of Politics

There’s no denying it: the destruction of our campaign finance laws has created an out of control system that poses a serious threat to our democracy. The announcement that Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has raised over $114 million, along with the fact that the Koch brothers plan to spend almost $900 million, feeds into the fears of many that the U.S. is turning into an oligarchy, where the views of wealthy donors are the only ones that matter. A huge majority of Americans think the campaign finance system needs reform, and this is an issue that presidential candidates can’t ignore.

This week, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, an outspoken opponent of big money in politics, pledged to introduce legislation at the start of the next session that would provide public financing for elections. Hillary Clinton has also stated her support for small-donor public financing. A bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) attempted to level the playing field by providing voters with $25 to spend on elections and to match small individual donations to a candidate  6 to 1 with public money, which would turn into a 9 to 1 match for candidates that rejected large donations altogether.

In addition, both Sanders and Clinton have expressed their support for a constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United, as has Sen. Lindsey Graham.  These two solutions, public financing of elections and an amendment to get big money out of politics, are both highlighted as measures needed to fix the broken campaign finance system in “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Reform Agenda,” released by PFAW and other campaign finance reform proponents.  As the agenda makes clear, for lasting change we have to move beyond “individual statements or even individual solutions” toward a comprehensive set of policy solutions.

Three out of four Americans are in support of a constitutional amendment, and over 5 million people have signed a petition in favor of it. Many other political leaders at the state and local level from both major parties want to put an end to the post-Citizens United big donor arms race.

 As Sen. Sanders has pointed out:

The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue. It is an American issue.

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Scott Walker's Environmental Woes

At a recent campaign stop, Scott Walker was greeted by two young people who were very excited to see him – just not in the sense he would have hoped. Two activists from 350 Action tricked Governor Walker into holding up a fake check displaying his reliance on the Koch brothers.

When interviewed by reporters, one of the activists, Elaine Colligan, explained that her inspiration stemmed from Walker’s lack of climate change prevention policies. “Scott Walker is the worst on climate change,” she said, comparing him to the other 2016 presidential candidates. Colligan’s complaints are not unfounded, since being elected as governor of Wisconsin, Walker has demonstrated his preference for the fossil fuel industry over efforts to prevent climate change.

To list only a few of Walker’s policies that have led to his current reputation: he signed the no climate tax pledge, prepared a lawsuit against the federal government because of EPA regulations, proposed to cut $8.1 million from a renewable energy research center, and advocated for increased railways carrying frac sand. It is no surprise Walker is being targeted by environmental advocacy organizations like 350 Action.

At the campaign stop, another attendee joined in, saying: “Scott Walker will do anything to get elected! Because that’s what politicians do!” While this comment is particularly pessimistic, it stems from a frustration many Americans feel with our current campaign system. When a man like Scott Walker, who is receiving millions from undisclosed and unregulated donors, is more influenced by those donors than everyday Americans like Elaine Colligan, something is obviously wrong with the system. But there has been recent action calling for reform of this system, including a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. Candidates need to be responsive to their constituents on issues like climate change, rather than to the wealthy special interests that can afford to pour money into our elections.

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Conservatives, As Well As Liberals, Can't Stand Big Money in Politics

 The unpopularity of our post-Citizens United campaign finance system knows no partisan bounds. As wealthy donors have continued to pump larger and larger amounts of money into our elections, a vast majority of Americans, including Republicans, have decided that the system needs to be changed. Three-quarters of self-identified Republicans want more disclosure by outside spending groups, and only 12 percent of Republicans believe that the new campaign finance laws have made the process of nominating presidential candidates better.

 While many in Washington treat this as a partisan issue, at the local and state levels, Republican officials have joined the fight to get money out of politics.  Resolutions urging Congress to adopt an amendment that would set limits on campaign expenditures passed in statehouses with bipartisan support, and 159 Republican officials mostly at the state level have stated their opposition to the Citizens United decision. Now, conservative grassroots activists are starting to turn their attention to this issue.  

 Last Friday, conservatives from organizations such as the Weekly Standard and the American Enterprise Institute met at a forum titled “Finding Common Ground on Money-In-Politics in Washington,” where they explored ways to improve the campaign finance system that could appeal to Americans on both sides of the aisle. Some ideas floated were to reform the makeup of the gridlocked Federal Election Commission, to better enforce bans on foreign contributions to elections, and to incentivize small donations through tax credits.

 

“To leave the field void, to say no one on the right is talking about money in politics, I think is a problem,” said John Pudner, a GOP strategist and executive director of Take Back Our Republic, an organization that promotes campaign finance reform from a conservative perspective.

 

 Public officials from both major parties have spoken out in favor of campaign finance reform, including Democratic Senator Todd Udall, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Even former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has expressed her frustration with the “absurd” amount of money in our political system. With the movement to get money out of politics enjoying bipartisan support, it’s only a matter of time until this passion turns into real reform at the legislative level.

 

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Jeb Bush, Of All People, Says He Wants Lobbying Reform

On Monday, July 20th Jeb Bush announced that he wants to curb the influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. by setting a six-year moratorium on former members of Congress registering as lobbyists.  Bush said, ““We need to help politicians rediscover life outside of Washington… which — who knows? — might even be a pleasant surprise for them.” His comedic interjection is an indication of the stance he has decided to take on this issue, posing as a Beltway outsider who can see, and wants to reform, Washington’s corruption.

But Bush is anything but a political outsider. His father and brother spent a combined 20 years in the White House and he was Florida’s governor for eight years, after which he became a political consultant. Neither is he rejecting the money that lobbyists are currently collecting on his behalf: he has eight lobbyists working together to raise more than $228,000 for his campaign. That’s on top of his efforts to skirt campaign finance rules by spending months raising millions of dollars for a superPAC that purports not to coordinate with his own presidential campaign. Bush is the ultimate establishment candidate, regardless of whether or not he has spent time on the Hill.

And while this specific proposal is well and good, it’s also glaringly insufficient. The reforms Bush supports would not stop much of the lobbying that does occur in Washington. The six-year ban would only apply to registered lobbyists, a designation easily avoided by not engaging in specific activities or spending less than 20 percent of one’s time actually lobbying. There are simply too many loopholes Bush’s plan would not cover for real reform to occur.

Jeb Bush made this announcement in an effort to capture some of the grassroots anger at the role of money in politics. But, hopefully it will also ignite some real debate and raise public awareness of the reforms we would need to make a meaningful difference.

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Yet Another Poll Shows Americans’ Frustration With Big Campaign Spending

 As the primaries for the 2016 elections get closer, we can expect to see the effects of big money in politics – the new normal after the 2010 Citizens United decision – in full force. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has raised $114 million through both his campaign and Right to Rise, a super PAC backing him. With the Koch brothers alone already pledging to raise $889 million through their network of wealthy donors, it’s likely that this election’s expenditures will well exceed the over $1 billion spent in the 2012 federal elections. As a result, many Americans are fed up with this new campaign finance system.

 A Monmouth University survey released yesterday revealed that only 10 percent of Americans say that the influx of campaign spending post Citizens United has made the presidential nominating process better. Further, 42 percent expressed concern that the new campaign finance landscape makes it more likely that an unqualified or unserious candidate would be able to stay in the race longer.

 These statistics are hardly surprising. A New York Times poll showed that 85 percent of Americans think that the campaign finance system needs either “fundamental changes” or to be “completely rebuil[t].” In addition, three out of four Americans support a constitutional amendment that would limit campaign spending, and 5 million have signed a petition in favor of such an amendment. All around the country, Americans are organizing to let their legislators know that they’re tired of big money’s undue influence in their elections.

 “The public is starting to worry that the Wild West nature of campaign finance is damaging the way we choose presidential candidates,” said Patrick Murray, the polling institute’s director. 

 

 With the public standing strong against letting the wealthy few buy their elections, a national conversation about the harmful effects of Citizens United is taking place, blazing a trail for real reform.

PFAW

Organizations Unite in Fight Against Big Money

Today PFAW and 11 other organizations released “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda,” a money in politics reform agenda directed at 2016 presidential candidates. The memo details a specific set of policies and encourages candidates to commit to supporting them.

Goals of the agenda include amplifying the voices of everyday Americans through meaningful contribution limits, real-time disclosure of political contributions, overturning cases like Citizens United through the Democracy For All constitutional amendment, and enforcing existing campaign finance laws to help ensure that money is not allowed to overshadow the priorities of the people.

According to the agenda:

The size of your wallet should not determine the strength of your political voice. But, in a long series of decisions beginning with Buckley v. Valeo and escalating with Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court has cemented a flawed reading of our Constitution that strips the ability of We the People to impose common sense limits on election spending.

"Fighting Big Money, Empowering People” has been distributed to every announced 2016 candidate, many of whom have already voiced their support for fighting big money in elections. It’s time to move from rhetoric toward a commitment to specific, comprehensive solutions.

You can share the graphic below to show your solidarity with getting big money out of politics and returning power to everyday Americans. Together we can make a democracy where everyone participates, everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone plays by fair, common-sense rules.


PFAW

The Vice President Calls for Action to Fight Big Money in Politics

Last week the fight against big money in politics received renewed, and passionate, support from Vice President Joe Biden. During a speech to young activists at the Make Progress summit on July 16th, Biden issued a call to action:

"We can do something about the corrosive impact of massive amounts of money. We can demand that the people we support don't yield to millionaires and billionaires. [Instead, they can] take their money in limited amounts, but what are we doing?"

The Obama administration has already declared its support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United (2010), but the Vice President called for a more immediate form of action: holding candidates accountable. "Folks, we ought to start in our own party. You ought to be demanding of all of us, all of us, because at least in our own party fights among ourselves, in primaries, that we adhere to a policy that doesn't rest on millionaires and billionaires."

This was a speech tailored to mobilize activists who have been part of a slow fight since 2010. Although progress has been made, with over 650 cities, 16 states, and 73% of Americans in support of a constitutional amendment, we have yet to see any real change in the way campaigns are funded. The 2016 presidential race is already seeing the effects of Super PAC funding and that influence will only continue to grow.

Biden clearly intended to inspire a new generation of activists by focusing on what the attendees themselves could do to help fix the system, saying, “If you're ever going to be involved in public service this is the time to do it, because things are changing.”

Hopefully the Vice President’s passion and optimism is an indication of the change that is coming in our campaign finance system. As Vice President Biden put it, the current system of auctioning our elections to the highest bidder is “a hell of a way to run a democracy."

 

PFAW

Campaigns and Their Super PACs: Not As Autonomous As One Would Hope

Thanks to damaging Supreme Court decisions and a gridlocked FEC, Super PACs have become a central element in our presidential elections. Yet, Americans could at least comfort themselves with the notion that these PACs and the candidates they support were at least required to operate independently from one another. A recent article in the Washington Post proves otherwise.

The article argues that a close reading of the Federal Election Commission rules shows that candidates and interest groups can do more than make public statements about their needs and hope their counterparts are listening; they can actually communicate with one another directly. According to the Washington Post piece, “Operatives on both sides can talk to one another directly, as long as they do not discuss candidate strategy. According to an FEC rule, an independent group also can confer with a campaign until this fall about “issue ads” featuring a candidate. Some election-law lawyers think that a super PAC could share its entire paid media plan, as long as the candidate’s team does not respond.” The coordination is more extensive than people imagine, and, apparently, perfectly legal.

But even the lawyers working on this issue do not agree on what is legal and what is not. Phil Cox who works for America Leads (a Super PAC supporting Chris Christie), says, for example, “The system makes no sense. It’s crying out for reform. We need to put the power back in the hands of the candidates and their campaigns, not the outside groups.” Bob Bauer, a campaign finance lawyer, agrees,

“The problem isn’t that the law isn’t being enforced — the problem is that we need to rethink the whole thing from the ground up.”

This coordination is already affecting the 2016 elections. But even beyond returning power to the candidates, we need to return the power of influencing elections back to the people. Because, in the end, it is the people who need to be represented and therefore, heard. Perhaps this regulation avoidance will cause people to realize that it is the system that needs reform.

PFAW

PFAW Members, Local Activists Hold Kelly Ayotte Accountable For Opposing Amendment to Overturn Citizens United

People For the American Way members and other supporters of the movement to get big money out of politics delivered a clear message last night about Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s refusal to support a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United.

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Activists took to the South Willow Street Bridge in Manchester to hold boxes with LED lights to spell out the words “AYOTTE WON’T #GETMONEYOUT.” Ayotte has described a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics as “dangerous” – despite the fact that a majority of New Hampshire voters who support such an amendment.

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Voters in New Hampshire and beyond are increasingly concerned about the amount of money in politics, and the proposed constitutional amendment would dramatically curb political spending to help ensure that our elections can’t be bought by wealthy special interests. New Hampshire activists are committed to holding Ayotte accountable for her refusal to support the movement to undo big money’s corrosive influence on our elections.

 

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