Money in Politics Debated in Midterm Elections

In Congressional races across the country, the issue of big money in elections is making its way into campaign speeches, debates and media coverage. Hundreds of millions have already been spent by anonymous sources through shadowy “dark money” groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors, and this influx of untraceable money will undoubtedly escalate as Election Day draws closer.  

In Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is locked in a close race with Democratic challenger Alison Grimes, the issue of big money in politics was recently brought up in a televised debate. “The only person Washington’s been benefiting is Senator McConnell and the millionaires and billionaires that have bankrolled him,” Grimes said, with McConnell essentially dismissing the assertion. Indeed, McConnell has repeatedly defended the role of outside money in politics, even going as far as to say that the current state of campaign finance is the “most free and open system we've had in modern times.” PFAW activists on the ground in Kentucky have been hard at work calling McConnell out for his record of blocking efforts to get big money out of politics.

At a recent debate in Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor criticized his Republican challenger Rep. Tom Cotton for taking money from political action groups that receive funding from billionaires like Charles and David Koch. Sen. Pryor went on to call out Rep. Cotton for praising the Koch network at an exclusive event hosted by the brothers this past summer, where he credited his political rise to the support of Koch-funded groups such as Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity.

In Kansas, the home state of Koch Industries, Senate candidate Greg Orman, who is running as an independent, has pledged to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. In response, Republican incumbent Pat Roberts has criticized him in a TV ad for supposedly seeking to take away free speech. Of course, the amendment would do nothing of the sort – it would simply restore legislators’ ability to set reasonable limits on money in elections.

If one thing can be learned from the 2014 midterms, it’s that without reform, the enormous amount of money being spent in elections will continue to grow. The need for a constitutional amendment is becoming increasingly clear, with public support on the rise. Over 550 towns and cities, 16 states, 200 members of Congress and nearly three and a half million people have called for an amendment. By the 5th anniversary of Citizens United, coming up in January, a diverse group of organizations seeks to gather over five million signatures and send a strong statement when the 114th Congress convenes next year.  

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Even Michele Bachmann Is Fed Up With The ‘Bizarre And Absurd’ Level Of Money In Politics

We know from polls that Americans on the left, right and everywhere in between are fed up with the destructive role of big money in politics and are ready for a solution to the unchecked flood of spending that has been released by a recent string of Supreme Court decisions.

But that idea got a surprising endorsement from Rep. Michele Bachmann, the ultraconservative Minnesota Republican, who in response to a question after a speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday (10/15), lamented the “ridiculous,” “crazy,” “bizarre and absurd” level of money that is now saturating elections.

Money in politics clip starts 49 minutes in:

“I think it’s ridiculous the amount of money we spend on these elections,” she said. “It’s gone into the level of the bizarre and absurd.”

Recalling her 2010 reelection battle, for which she raised over $13 million, Bachmann said, “That’s crazy money. That’s crazy that any candidate should have to raise that kind of money.”

“Money is buying influence rather than real people going to the polls,” she said.

Bachmann didn’t propose any solution to the surge of money in politics, except hinting at spending limits for campaigns — which were struck down by the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. But her comments mark a rare occasion in which a Republican member of the 113th Congress – a Tea Partier no less – has gone on record to acknowledge the troubling influence of big money in politics.

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Fairer Elections Through Public Financing: Montgomery County, Maryland, Leads the Way

It’s no secret that our country’s elections have been taken over by out-of-control spending, and this year’s rapidly approaching midterms are no exception. Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing to read about some recent progress in the fight to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Today the Montgomery County Council in Maryland is set to vote on legislation that would create a system of small-donor public financing for local elections — and it’s looking likely to pass.

It’s a system based on a simple premise: swap in lots of small donations from local community members in place of a handful of large donations from powerful interests. Encourage local people to give money to candidates they support by matching those donations with public funds. Not only does this empower regular people to get involved in campaigns, since they see their dollar going further, but it makes it smart for candidates to seek support from, and be accountable to, their own community members rather than wealthy special interests.

The Baltimore Sun explains how it would work in Montgomery County:

Beginning in 2015, candidates for county executive or council would qualify to have their political campaigns publicly funded if they attracted a sufficient number of small contributions of $5 to $150. In the case of a council race, for instance, it would be 125 donations adding up to at least $10,000. After that, campaigns would be largely publicly financed on a matching basis….The system would be voluntary, but participants would not be able to accept donations larger than $150 or from political action committees or labor organizations.

Public financing has worked in other cities across the country. Take New York City as an example. A 2012 Brennan Center analysis of the effects of the city’s public finance model found that the matching system helped “bring participants into the political process who traditionally are less likely to be active.” The study suggested that the model encouraged candidates to reach out to a more diverse group of people to support their campaigns, rather than centering all of their efforts on the wealthiest donors.

And when candidates start getting into office because of the support of their constituents, rather than because a few wealthy special interests have bankrolled their campaigns, the policy agenda can shift from one designed to keep powerful interests happy to one designed to serve the common good.

Legislators across the country should take note of what’s happening in Montgomery County. Polling consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of voters want to see elected officials work to lessen big money’s impact on our elections. In other words, Americans understand the problem but are hungry for solutions. Along with long-term fixes like pushing to amend the Constitution to overturn decisions like Citizens United, small donor public financing can be a way to put everyday Americans’ voices at the center of our political process, where they belong.

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Justice Ginsburg Would Overturn Citizens United

In a recent interview with the New Republic, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reiterated her belief that Citizens United v. FEC was the worst ruling to be handed down from the Roberts court:

“If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”

The interview goes on to cover a range of topics, including her growing notoriety as an internet sensation as well as her plans to stay on the court as an active justice.

“As long as I can do the job full steam, I will stay here. I think I will know when I’m no longer able to think as lucidly, to remember as well, to write as fast. I was number one last term in the speed with which opinions came down. My average from the day of argument to the day the decision was released was sixty days, ahead of the chief by some six days. So I don’t think I have reached the point where I can’t do the job as well.”

In previous interviews Justice Ginsburg has described this Court’s campaign finance decisions as its biggest mistakes, alluding to the way in which money is “corrupting our system.”

Our affiliate PFAW Foundation recently released a report examining Justice Ginsburg’s vital role dissenting against the increasingly conservative rulings of the Roberts Court.

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Atlanta in Support of Constitutional Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

On Monday city council members in Atlanta overwhelmingly passed a resolution (12-2) in support of the Democracy for All amendment, joining the list of more than 550 towns and cities across the country that have called on Congress to address our broken campaign finance system. Last week 54 senators voted in support of the proposed amendment, which would overturn decisions like Citizens United and allow legislators to set reasonable limits on money in election. One additional cosponsor of the bill was unable to attend the vote, so the total number of U.S. Senate supporters is 55.

The recent votes in Washington and in Atlanta indicate a clear trend: people are tired of big money buying influence in our elections. Local and state victories are a key step toward the passage of a 28th amendment, which requires approval of 2/3 of Congress and ¾ of the states. A growing coalition of organizations are mobilizing their members around this issue, with groups now working together on the local, state and national level.  

Passing a constitutional amendment is no easy feat, though with concerted effort and determination history has proven it can happen, as it has 27 times thus far. In less than five years since the Citizens United v. FEC decision was handed down, the progress that has been made in enacting a solution is substantial: 3.2 million people, 55 senators, 16 states and over 550 municipalities have all called for a constitutional amendment. Through the continued leadership of cities such as Atlanta, the will of the people can be made unmistakably clear to those in Washington. This is a debate, and an amendment, that the American people are willing to fight for.

 

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Louisville Activists Protest McConnell's Vote Against Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

On Friday, PFAW members and local activists came out to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s West Louisville campaign office to hold him accountable for his support of big money in politics and for voting against the Democracy For All Amendment during this week’s Senate vote.

The rally included PFAW Regional Political Coordinator Scott Foval, along with MoveOn Council’s Ann Hardman, University of Louisville’s College Democrats President Connor Allen, and local activist Bonifacio “Flaco” Aleman. Activists had a giant “King Mitch” holding fake money and signs saying “Money Is Not Speech” and “Mitch: Go Filibuster Yourself!” and more.

McConnell led the fight to block the Democracy for All Amendment during Senate debates this week. As a leading voice against efforts to get big money out of elections, McConnell has fought hard for years to protect billionaires’ and millionaires’ influence in our elections instead of protecting the average Kentuckian’s interests.

This rally along with over 15,000 signatures on a petition delivered to McConnell last week should make it clear to “King Mitch” that Kentuckians support an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United and #GetMoneyOut. Polling also shows that three in four voters support the measure nationally.

There were not sufficient votes to pass the proposed amendment this week, but a majority of the Senate did vote on Thursday in support of the Democracy for All Amendment despite “King Mitch’s” best efforts.
 

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Final day of Senate debate to #GetMoneyOut

Yesterday a majority of the Senate voted in support of the Democracy for All amendment. Though there were not sufficient votes to pass it, the vote itself represents a historic step forward for the movement to restore the power in our democracy to the people.

The opposition lobbed a few final blows, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senators David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah, repeating the same specious arguments made all week, but Democracy for All supporters stood firm.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont:

Posterity vindicates the moments in our Nation’s history when Congress simply did what was right. We honor those who voted to ensure that the right to vote cannot be denied based on race, color, previous condition of servitude or gender. We honor those who voted to ensure that a poll tax could never again prohibit an American from voting for their own representatives. I urge my colleagues to act in this tradition, to simply do what is right, and to join me in supporting this proposed amendment to the Constitution.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:

The First Amendment has already been hijacked by billionaires and special interests. Our amendment rescues it.

Here’s the bottom line. Billionaires want to stay at the head of the table and our amendment will not let them. Let’s be clear, they oppose any restriction. Any reform. Today’s vote may have been along party lines, but I will leave it to the American people to judge why.

We will continue this fight. The momentum continues to grow, and we will eventually win. The American people hate the influence of money on our elections. They want elections to be about the quality of ideas, not the size of bank accounts. They want us to fight for the middle class, not the moneyed class. They want us to spend our time raising hopes, instead of raising cash.

Senator Udall once again quoted “The First Amendment, According to Mitch McConnell” by PFAW President Michael Keegan and also recognized the work of People For the American Way and its fellow United For The People organizations.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York:

We are going to keep fighting until we get this done. The only way really to cure the Supreme Court’s misguided ruling, whether it is in Citizens United or McCutcheon, is with a constitutional amendment. Our day will come. We are not giving up.

You can find these passages and more from Thursday's debate here.

Follow @peoplefor and check out our blog for more coverage of Democracy for All.

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Across the Country Activists Support Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

 

While billionaires and corporations have been busy buying airtime to influence midterm elections, average Americans have been active in letting politicians know that they are sick and tired of big money in politics. As the Democracy for All amendment gets debated and voted on in the Senate this week, an ongoing grassroots push has helped shape the conversation.

On Monday over 3.2 million petition signatures calling for a constitutional amendment were delivered to Congress, gathered by more than two dozen progressive organizations. This diverse coalition includes groups such as the Communications Workers of America, MoveOn.org, Sierra Club, Daily Kos, CREDO Action, Common Cause, Corporate Accountability International, Public Citizen and People For the American Way.

More than 25 local actions have happened across the country, delivering petitions to the district offices of target senators in key states. These events have been hugely successful, with solid attendance at a small spirited event at Senator Murkowski’s office in Juneau, Alaska to a large rally at Senator Kirk’s office in Chicago, IL and a marching band that showed up to help provide support for an event at Senator Ayotte’s office in Portsmouth, NH.

These events have earned a great deal of  media coverage, so much so that most of the five remaining Democrats who have not cosponsored the Democracy for All amendment have now made commitments to vote for it – in large part as a result of the events in their states. Four even put out public statements in connection with the events.

Additionally more than 15,000 calls have been made this week to Senators’ offices asking them to support the Democracy for All amendment. These are only the reported calls, many more have likely been made without being counted. This is an average of over 300 calls per Senate office.

Perhaps most exciting of all – things are just getting started – this first milestone vote on the Democracy for All amendment marks the beginning of what will be a truly historic push to protect the promise of American democracy.

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Third day of Senate debate to #GetMoneyOut

While America's foreign policy challenges and other critical issues dominated the Senate floor on Wednesday, debate on the Democracy for All amendment continued for a third day.

Those opposed to getting money out of politics are even sounding like they're on our side.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri

But if people are paying attention, the points that will be scored will be scored by those defending the Bill of Rights and those defending the Constitution . . . For those who want to defend the Constitution, count me on their side.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa:

[P]olitical speech is essential to the American way of life.

They ignore the fact that their points are very much among those that inspired Democracy for All in the first place.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:

Changing the Constitution is a big step not to be taken lightly. In the Federalist Paper No. 49, James Madison argued the Constitution should be amended only on ‘‘great and extraordinary occasions.’’ I agree. I also believe we have reached one of those occasions.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts:

Our democracy is based on the fundamental principle that all voters, and each and every vote cast, are created equal. People, not dollars, are the true currency of our Constitution and democracy.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana:

[M]y wife and I still farm, and for part of August I had the pleasure to be able to be on the tractor and have some quality time to think about what makes our Nation great. There are many reasons, but one of them is the belief that everyone has a say in the decisions we make in this democracy, that each of us—from the richest to the poorest—has an equal stake in electing our leaders and impacting how we govern. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not figured that out.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont:

So of all of the issues out there— whether you are concerned about education, health care, the environment, the economy—the most important issue underlying all of those issues is the need to end this disastrous Supreme Court decision which allows billionaires to buy elections. That is not what people fought and died for in the name of democracy. That is called oligarchy. Abraham Lincoln talked about a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not a government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires, and that is where we are today.

I hope the American people are watching. The media has not paid, for interesting reasons, a lot of attention to this issue, but there is no domestic issue that I can think of more important for the future of this country.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio:

If it were not for the political pressure, the money that just rolls across the political landscape, that washes across the candidates for the Senate, the candidates for the House, we could pass the minimum wage. But Members of the Senate, when they think about voting on this, they think about the big money that might come in against them if they vote for the minimum wage.

Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado:

We can see this corruption in the difficult decisions we avoid. It is the tough vote that we will not take. It is the bill we can’t pass even in the face of urgent need. It is the deal that can’t be reached. It is the speech that is never made. It is the story of the do-less than the do-nothing Congress.

You can find these passages and more from Wednesday's debate here.

Follow @peoplefor and check out our blog for more coverage of Democracy for All.

PS – A special shout-out to Senator Udall for quoting “The First Amendment, According to Mitch McConnell” by PFAW President Michael Keegan.

A good rule of thumb in politics is that the scarier someone sounds, the more you should doubt what they're saying.

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Second day of Senate debate to #GetMoneyOut

When Senators returned to the floor on Tuesday for the second day of debate on the Democracy for All amendment, supporters continued to build a strong case for getting money out of politics, while the opposition ramped up its hyperbole.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah would have us believe that the amendment is an un-American attack on "outside intruders" like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That is who the authors of this amendment believe are outside intruders whose speech somehow needs to be regulated, needs to be restricted by Congress—people with ideas that are ‘‘unreasonable,’’ people such as Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas proclaimed:

I guarantee there is no one in this country who truly believes money is not speech. It is a talking point[.]

Well, Senator, sixteen states and more than 550 counties, cities, and towns have called for an amendment, including many seeking to establish that money is not speech.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota:

It is no wonder a George Washington University Battleground poll found that 70 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

That may be true, but Americans also think that we need an amendment like Democracy for All.

One option we tested is a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Voters support such an amendment by an overwhelming 73 to 24 percent margin, including majorities in even the reddest states.

Other highlights from day two:

Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada:

At one time the Republican leader was rooted in the principle that the wealthy shouldn’t be able to buy public office whether for themselves or for others. Even as recently as late in 2007 he was preaching donor disclosure. What has changed in the last few years?

Over the last several years we have witnessed the Koch brothers trying to buy America, to pump untold millions into our democracy, hoping to get a government that would serve their bottom line and make them more money. The news today says they are out promoting themselves, and that is easy to do because they are worth $150 billion.

So we are watching the corrupting influence that the Republican leader foretold 27 years ago and many years thereafter before our very eyes. He switched teams. What could have possibly convinced the senior Senator from Kentucky that limitless, untraceable campaign donations aren’t really that bad after all?

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota:

I find this whole thing incredibly disturbing, this idea that a handful of superwealthy corporate interests in effect can buy our democracy—or in this case one guy. That is not how it is supposed to work. Everyone is supposed to have an equal say in our democracy regardless of his or her wealth. The guy in the assembly line gets as many votes as the CEO—one. You don’t get extra influence just because you have extra money—or you shouldn’t. The government should be responsive to everyone and not just the wealthiest among us.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon:

This premise is so well-known to citizens that when you say: What are the first three words of our Constitution, they will say, together: ‘‘We the People,’’ because that is what animates our system of government—‘‘We the People.’’ Those who came to argue for the government by and for the powerful are simply trying to destroy our Constitution and our vision of government.

Citizens United, a court case that absolutely ignores the fundamental premises on which our Nation is founded, is a dagger poised at the heart of our democracy. It is a decision by five Justices that this framework doesn’t matter.

Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island:

I believe fixing the campaign finance system through this constitutional amendment will provide a foundation so we can have reasonable debate that is responsive to the interests of the American people and not responsive to the interests of a narrow class of Americans.

Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii:

The vast majority of the American people disagree with the Supreme Court’s unprecedented interpretation of the First Amendment. The Court has left us with the option we are pursuing today—amending the U.S. Constitution. When the Supreme Court said that women did not have the right to vote, Congress and the people passed the 19th Amendment. So amending the Constitution to protect our democracy is not some new or radical idea. When the Supreme Court said States could impose poll taxes on the poor, Congress and the people passed the 24th Amendment, and the list goes on. Why? Because the Supreme Court is made up of human beings, and as human beings they sometimes get it wrong, as they did in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions.

Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:

This debate is crucial. This debate is absolutely crucial to the future of our country, and I believe the American people are not only listening, they are demanding to be heard, because every voice counts, and that is why the majority of Americans support reform. They know the system is broken.

Senator John Walsh of Montana:

Passing this amendment is vital if we are going to begin to roll back the coercive influence of money in our democracy. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, political power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of corporations and modern-day copper kings. In fact, less than 1 percent of Americans provide over two-thirds of the money spent on elections. The voices of everyday Americans are simply being silenced.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island:

Frankly, I have great reverence for the First Amendment, and I think it is extremely unfortunate that an argument would be made that is really nothing more than a rhetorical trick and does not respond to the gravamen of the dispute, which is whether the First Amendment should protect unlimited corporate spending when in the history of this country—until the decision by Citizens United—it never had.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio:

To restore voters’ faith in the political system, to ensure voters that their voices are being heard, one man, one woman, one American, one vote, that is what we stand for. Those are our values. That is why this is an important issue.

You can find these passages and more from Tuesday's debate here.

Follow @peoplefor and check out our blog for more coverage of Democracy for All.

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