At the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend, President Obama delivered 20 minutes of his trademark dry humor, working in jabs at Michele Bachmann, Joe Biden, climate change deniers in Congress, and himself, to name a few. Perhaps some of the most pertinent jokes of the evening came about halfway into his speech, when he poked fun at the 2016 GOP presidential field, the Koch brothers and the influence of big money in politics.
“Soon the first presidential contest will take place, and I for one cannot wait to see who the Koch brothers pick,” President Obama joked. “It’s exciting… the winner gets a billion dollar war chest. The runner up gets to be the bachelor on the next season of The Bachelor.”
“I mean, seriously – a billion dollars,” the president continued. “From just two guys. Is it just me or does that feel a little excessive?”
The president making these pointed jokes is the latest example of a growing cultural awareness of the problems stemming from big money in politics. With presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Bernie Sanders all in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, this issue is rapidly ripening for broader public discussion.
As the Supreme Court prepares for arguments about the right to marry, PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin says our country may be “on the verge of a historic breakthrough.”
On Thursday, PFAW hosted a telebriefing for members and supporters on this historic moment in anticipation of oral arguments in the Supreme Court marriage cases (Obergefell v. Hodges) next week. PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker moderated a conversation among affiliate PFAW Foundation Senior Fellows Jamie Raskin and Elliot Mincberg as well as People For supporters who called in to join the discussion.
In the telebriefing, Raskin and Mincberg unpacked some of the questions before the court — not only whether states can prohibit same-sex couples from marrying or refuse to recognize marriages from other states — but also the implications of the various types of reasoning the justices may use to reach their decision.
They also reflected on the remarkable social transformation our country has seen on the rights of LGBT people. Raskin remembered that the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, which upheld the criminalization of “sodomy,” came out while he was in law school. With the Court’s steady march away from that kind of legal reasoning, he said, “there’s no going back from here.”
Mincberg pointed out that, unfortunately, the backlash has started before the Supreme Court even decides the cases. With “right to discriminate” legislation pending in more than a dozen states and a handful considering “marriage refusal” bills, it’s clear that the far Right is already forging ahead with a nationwide push to undermine the expanding rights of LGBT Americans.
Call participants shared some great questions and opinions, including a retired pediatric doctor who asked why the principles accepted by the medical community to take care of your patients rather than question or judge them have not been accepted by the political community as well.
Listen to the full telebriefing here:
This piece, by PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin, was originally published by Salon.
If you take away Prohibition (the 18th Amendment) and its repeal (the 21st), most of our constitutional amendments since the original Bill of Rights have expanded the voting rights and political equality of the people.
Our post-Reconstruction amendments have abolished slavery (the 13th), provided for equal protection of the laws and required reduction of states’ congressional delegations if they disenfranchise eligible voters (the 14th), denied states the power to discriminate in voting based on race (the 15th) and shifted the mode of election of U.S. Senators from the legislatures to the people (the 17th). They have passed woman suffrage (the 19th), given residents of the federal district the right to vote and participate in presidential elections by casting electors (the 23rd), abolished poll taxes in federal elections (the 24th) and lowered the voting age to 18 (the 26th).
Moreover, many of these amendments have directly responded to Supreme Court decisionsdenying the political rights of the people. For example, the 19th Amendment overturned the Court’s decision in Minor v. Happersett (1875), which held that Equal Protection did not protect the right of women to vote, affirming precedents finding that women’s proper place is in the domestic sphere. Similarly, the 24th Amendment banning poll taxes in federal elections overturned the Court’s 1937 decision in Breedlove v. Suttles upholding such taxes.
But if you listened only to some of my colleagues in the legal establishment, you might never know that our unfolding Bill of Rights is a dynamic chronicle of the democratic struggles of the people for participatory political equality nor would you know that the people have often had to override reactionary decisions of the Supreme Court in the process.
A lot of lawyers today react with horror to U.S. Reps. Marc Pocan and Keith Ellison’s excellent push for a constitutional amendment to establish an affirmative and universal right to vote against recurring state efforts to disenfranchise people. And a lot of academics were aghast last summer when every Democratic United States senator supported a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) and Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett (2011).
The amendment, backed by the vast majority of Americans and a surging national campaign that 16 states and more than 650 cities and towns have joined, would restore the people’s power to stop CEOs from spending corporate treasury wealth on political races, to impose reasonable campaign finance limits such as caps on aggregate contributions, and to develop public financing laws with matching grants that help empower poorer candidates to be heard over the roar of big money.
Yet we are constantly invited to believe that, however much big money comes to dominate our politics and control public policy, we must never touch our Constitution. It must be hidden away in the attic where it will be tended by wise Supreme Court justices and law professors who know that the people’s constitutional values will always be inferior to those of the judiciary and the experts. This attitude betrays our progressive democratic heritage and Thomas Jefferson’s important warning:
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc [sic] of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment . . . . But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.
The country’s most prolific voting rights scholar and blogger, Richard Hasen—a colleague and friend of mine—is the most recent legal academic to pour cold water all over the movement for a constitutional amendment to rebuild the statutory wall protecting democratic elections from the flood of plutocratic and corporate wealth. This is the wall that has been mostly demolished by the Roberts Court in both Citizens United and the McCutcheon decision.
While Citizens United turned every corporate treasury in the country into a potential political slush fund, McCutcheon wiped out all aggregate limits on federal campaign contributions so that tycoons can now max out to every incumbent Member of Congress–plus all their opponents! The top half of the top 1 percent can now pretty much bankroll all federal campaigns, which is one reason why run-of-the-mill Republican millionaires and bundlers are complaining to the Washington Post that they have been bypassed in the nation’s wealth primary by “multi-multimillionaires and billionaires.” The bottom half of the top 1 percent is getting a sense of what it is like to be a political spectator in the country’s exclusionary wealth primary.
The Post also reports that public anxiety about plutocracy is becoming a key issue in the presidential election—not just among Democratic activists for whom it is “red meat,” according to Professor Hasen, but for Republicans and Independents too—pretty much everyone who lacks the strategic advantages of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. Earlier this month, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham also pointed to the need for a constitutional amendment to fix the damage done by Citizens United. Indeed, if you don’t think the accelerating takeover of our politics by big money affects public policy in the real world, you may or may not be an academic, but you are definitely too innocent to be let out of the house by yourself.
In launching her 2016 campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared a “big fight” to fix “our dysfunctional political system” by getting “unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” and I say good for her. Given Clinton’s legislative and political experience and her own prodigious navigation of our money politics, she obviously knows how the Roberts Court’s magical transformation of for-profit business corporations into political membership groups has completely distorted politics in the Citizens United era. Of course, some of the Republican presidential candidates are charging her with hypocrisy for seeking to change the plutocratic political system that shapes her campaign, along with everyone else’s, and sullies everyone who touches it. But this is predictable and pedestrian. The nihilistic enemies of reform prefer nothing systemic to change just so long as they can keep denouncing Hillary Clinton.
Thankfully there is no talk of hypocrisy in Hasen’s critique, but still all Clinton gets from him is a lot of negative energy. First, he faults her for not trying to fix “the nation’s disclosure laws,” which is strange because she supported the Disclose Act, which U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen introduced and which Republicans killed, and she has always championed disclosure. It is also strange because Clinton is clearly treating a constitutional amendment as a last resort in a struggle against a runaway faction of five plutocrats on the Supreme Court. If I am reading her correctly, Clinton wants unaccountable corporate money—which is now spent by CEOs in our political campaigns on a secret basis and without any consumer, shareholder or citizen control over it—to be subject to public regulation “even if it takes” a constitutional amendment. That doesn’t sound so reckless to me.
For Hasen, it seems sufficient to work for years or decades to mandate disclosure of the billions of dollars in corporate money coursing through the veins of the body politic, and then leave things at that. He is afraid that actually restoring the power of Congress to impose “reasonable” and viewpoint-neutral limits on corporate political expenditures would be subject to an effective judicial veto through reinterpretation by “a conservative majority on the Roberts Court” and therefore useless. Well, it is also the case that the addition of the words “equal protection” to the Constitution were effectively nullified through reinterpretation by a Jim Crow Supreme Court between Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education(1954). But does that make passage of the Fourteenth Amendment a bad idea? The Supreme Court has been a conservative and reactionary institution for most of our history, but that is precisely the reason for the people to write our Constitution in a way that advances and protects strong democracy. Having the right constitutional language in place may not be sufficient to constrain the reactionary elitism of the Supreme Court, but it is certainly necessary.
If we just wait around for new justices to change things and fail to directly engage this constitutional question in the public arena, we can expect to see the few remaining bricks of campaign finance law flattened by the Right and the Court, including base limits on individual contributions, the Tillman Act’s century-old ban on corporate contributions to federal candidates, the rules against “coordinated expenditures” between candidates and independent spenders, and the limits in 29 states on making campaign contributions during legislative sessions–all of them clearly at odds with the absolutist dogmas of the Right: that political money is political speech, that business corporations are First Amendment-protected political (and religious!) associations, and that the only kind of political corruption we can acknowledge and regulate are quid pro quo transfers tantamount to bribery.
But Hasen, finally, calls a constitutional amendment a “political nonstarter” because of the difficulties of passage. But here he ignores not only the success that popular movements have had in inscribing democratic values in the Constitution throughout our history, but also the way that serious constitutional movements can reshape the terrain of American politics with or without final passage and ratification. For example, the heroic movement for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s not only led to widespread adoption of state constitutional amendments and significant federal statutory changes advancing the equal rights of women but also helped shock the Supreme Court into action to apply “heightened scrutiny” to official gender-based discrimination under Equal Protection doctrine. Constitutional movements can change the mind of the Court.
Whether or not we summon up the two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states needed to pass a strong new anti-plutocracy amendment, the movement for such an amendment is essential to change the degraded assumptions of the Citizens United era. It will open up space for revival of the Disclose Act, for consideration of the “Shareholders United” legislation that I and other legislators have been advancing at the state level, for progress for small-donor plans like Congressman John Sarbanes’ Government By the People Act, and for an honest debate about Citizens United, which turned on its head two centuries of conservative understanding of what a corporation is.
Even if the best we can hope for is some modest new disclosure rules and a few new Supreme Court justices who tilt towards democracy over plutocracy, as Hasen advises Hillary Clinton, these outcomes are far more plausible and likely with a lively popular constitutional movement on the ground than the defeatist attitude that the Supreme Court always knows best.
Last week, Montana Governor Steve Bullock signed into law a sweeping campaign finance reform bill that represents a major bipartisan victory in the movement to get big money out of politics.
SB289 – the Montana Disclose Act – will require dark money groups to report their spending on state political races. The bill is a much-needed update to Montana’s campaign laws, and will help provide Montana voters with more information on the groups behind the political attack ads they see every election cycle.
During the state legislature’s debates on SB289, Montana PFAW members and other local activists lobbied their representatives, calling state representatives and urging them to support greater transparency in Montana’s politics. While signing the bill, Gov. Bullock announced that the state finally has a law “that mandates that every penny spent in our elections will be disclosed.”
“When it comes to Montanans as individuals having control of our elections, this is the most significant day in the last 112 years since Montanans passed the Corrupt Practices Act,” said Bullock.
SB289 passed with bipartisan support in both the State House and Senate. Montana’s victory is yet another indicator that big money’s threat to our democracy transcends party affiliation – and that money in politics is really only a partisan issue in Washington, DC.
When the Supreme Court struck down limits on outside spending in elections in the 2010 Citizens United case, critics pointed to a potentially huge public policy impact in issues ranging from environmental protection to tax policy to health care to voting rights.
But one impact of Citizens United has gone without as much public discussion as it deserves: It’s making it harder for criminal defendants to get a fair trial.
Last fall, the American Constitution Society released a report by two Emory University law professors illustrating that the big spending that Citizens United let loose in state judicial elections created a climate in which elected judges were more reluctant to side with defendants in criminal cases.
Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang found that outside groups seeking to influence judicial elections — usually for reasons unrelated to criminal justice policy — often relied on “Willie Horton” style attack ads implying that targeted judges were “soft on crime.” The proliferation of outside spending and the attack ads that the spending bought, they found, correlated with a decrease in the frequency with which elected state appellate judges ruled in favor of defendants in criminal cases.
“Unlimited independent spending is associated with, on average, a seven percent decrease in justices’ voting in favor of criminal defendants,” they wrote. “That is, the results predict that, after Citizens United, justices would vote differently and against criminal defendants in 7 out of 100 cases.”
Shepherd discussed her findings yesterday at a panel convened by ACS, along with retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Norman Reimer and Tanya Clay House of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Nelson, who was on the Montana Supreme Court when it famously ruled that Citizens United didn't apply to that state's unique history of corruption (Nelson dissented, saying the high court’s ruling applied to Montana, but took the opportunity to demolish the decision while he was at it), said he had lived first-hand the impact of big money in judicial races.
“The fact of the matter is that is when justices running for political office are attacked during their campaigns, it forces them to look over their shoulder constantly,” he said. “And I can tell you that from personal experience. You have to fight to make yourself vote the way the law requires you to vote. And most judges do. But it’s in these marginal cases where there’s a close call and perhaps the case should go to a defendant, it doesn’t go to the defendant.”
The groups spending money on judicial attack ads, he said, “really don’t give a damn about defendants’ rights. They really don’t care. What they want to do is to get somebody onto a court who marches in lockstep with their philosophy, or get somebody off the court that does not march in lockstep with their philosophy.”
Reimer sounded a similar note: “The fight is really about commercial interests. It’s usually about the plaintiffs’ bar versus the corporate interests, the unions, the conservatives. It’s about nothing to do with criminal justice. But because of the fear factor, that’s where you go after somebody.”
“I think we all need to understand and appreciate what’s really at risk here,” Nelson said. “And what’s really at risk is the fair, independent and impartial judicial system that most citizens in this country, and I think most lawyers in this country, simply take for granted. And if the dark money flows from Super PACS and the Koch brothers and RSLC and groups like them get control of the judiciary … That’s what this is all about: getting control of the third branch of government. If they get control of that third branch by spending their way to the top, then we’re going to lose that fair, impartial and independent judiciary that we’ve all come to expect and rely upon. Certainly criminal defendants are going to suffer immeasurably.”
Clay House pointed out that there is already “a different perception of the criminal justice system and judiciary among communities of color.” Pew found in 2013 that 68 percent of black Americans said they were “treated less fairly than whites” in the courts, while the majority of whites were oblivious to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Unchecked spending in judicial elections, the evidence shows, may be making that perception, and the reality, even worse.
From a mailman flying a gyrocopter to the Capitol to protest big money in politics, to Hillary Clinton making the issue a centerpiece of her campaign, to Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Lindsey Graham being asked about their stances on campaign finance reform at Q&A events, it’s clear that money in politics is shaping up to be a major issue in 2016. Yesterday The Washington Post’s Matea Gold reported on the grassroots push to spotlight the topic of big money’s influence on our democracy:
[F]ive years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — which held it was unconstitutional to ban independent political spending by corporations and unions, and helped set off a financial arms race — there are signs that politicians are beginning to confront a voter backlash.
….For those who feel strongly about it, the 2016 primaries and caucuses — and the up-close access they bring to the presidential contenders — offer a ripe opportunity to elevate the topic.
In New Hampshire, nearly 500 people have volunteered to attend public forums and press the White House hopefuls about money in politics, Weeks said.
In an interview aired Friday on National Public Radio, PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker underscored the importance of top candidates elevating this issue:
"When the leading candidate for president says she's going to make reducing the influence of money in politics one of the four pillars in her campaign, you know that that's going to be a major issue in 2016," Baker said. "So this is a very, very big deal."
While there are many issues that divide Americans, addressing the big-money takeover of our political system is not one of them. That both Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton expressed support for an amendment to get big money out of politics in the past two weeks underscores the fact that fighting to fix our broken democracy is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good politics – across the political spectrum.
With the movement to take back our democracy from wealthy special interests growing by the day, some of the country’s top political leaders are taking note and bringing the issue of money in politics front and center for 2016.
Yesterday presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed support for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics and said that campaign finance reform was going to be one of the four pillars of her campaign.
As PFAW’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker pointed out:
That Hillary Clinton will make the fight against big money in politics the centerpiece of her campaign is indicative of how much Americans care about this issue. She’s tapping into a deep-seated belief among people of all political stripes that we have to reclaim our democracy from corporations and billionaires. Americans are ready for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United, and ready for leaders who are going to make it a priority.
Amending the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United is a widely popular proposal with cross-partisan support. A July 2014 poll of Senate battleground states found that nearly three in four voters (73 percent) favor a constitutional amendment, including majorities “in even the reddest states.” In the five years since the Citizens United decision, local organizing has led 16 states and 650 cities and towns to support an amendment to overturn the decision and get big money out of politics. More than 5 million Americans have signed petitions in support of an amendment.
In anticipation of Marco Rubio’s announcement that he is running for President, People For the American Way launched a Spanish-language radio ad criticizing Rubio for his dangerous agenda that ignores the interests of working families, including Latinos. The ad makes clear how Rubio is no different from the rest of the GOP; his far-right positions should disqualify him from the Presidential ticket.
The ad runs this week, starting Monday morning, on Spanish-language radio stations in Miami, FL and Denver, CO.
Listen to the radio ad here:
At an event with a local television station in New Hampshire this weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham was asked a question about what he would do to fight big money in politics. In his response, Graham pointed to the need for a constitutional amendment to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United:
Well, Citizens United has gotta be fixed. Y'all agree with that? You're gonna need a constitutional amendment to fix this problem. I was for McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that provisions in McCain-Feingold basically no longer apply.
You're gonna get sick of watching TV in New Hampshire. So the next President of the United States needs to get a commission of really smart people and find a way to create a constitutional amendment to limit the role of super PACs because there's gonna be like $100M spent on races in New Hampshire — which'll be good for this TV station — ripping everybody apart. You don't even know who the people are supplying the money, you don't even know their agenda. Eventually we're gonna destroy American politics with so much money in the political process cause they're going to turn you off to wanting to vote. [emphasis added]
This is not the first time Sen. Graham has spoken out against the big money takeover of our elections. In March, Bloomberg’s David Weigel wrote about a comment Graham made to a voter — again, in New Hampshire — about his desire to see some “control” over money in politics so it won’t “destroy the political process.”
While voicing support for an amendment is important, when the Senate voted in September on the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposal that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and help get big money out of politics, Sen. Graham voted against it.
So here’s a follow-up question for Sen. Graham: Will you back up your words with action? Will you work with your colleagues in Congress who are already pushing for an amendment and help tackle the issue of big money in politics?
Today the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would allow people to regain the right to vote as soon as they are released from prison. The legislation rights a wrong in current Maryland law, which denies people voting rights until their entire sentence has been completed, including probation and parole. Without this bill, thousands of formerly incarcerated Marylanders — many of whom are people of color — will continue to be needlessly forced to stay home on Election Day.
PFAW activists in Maryland and members of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action have been working with allies to help change this, calling their state representatives and urging them to support the immediate restoration of voting rights.
Disenfranchising those who have served their time in prison hampers the process of reintegration and shamefully blocks thousands of Americans from participating in elections. It worsens the discrimination already faced by formerly incarcerated people — who pay taxes, work, and contribute to their communities — and it weakens our democracy.
Passage of this bill is a big step forward in the movement for voting rights for all. Now it’s up to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to sign it and help make the state’s democratic process as fair and accessible as possible.