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.
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?
In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow released this week, Warren Buffett had some strong words about Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that have handed increasing political power to the super-rich. Responding to a question about income inequality, Buffett raised the issue of money in elections:
With Citizens United and other decisions that enable the rich to contribute really unlimited amounts, that actually tilts the balance even more toward the ultra-rich…The unlimited giving to parties, to candidates, really pushes us more toward a plutocracy. They say it’s free speech, but somebody can speak 20 or 30 million times and my cleaning lady can’t speak at all.
Watch the interview clip here:
This afternoon activists from PFAW and ally groups participated in a petition delivery at the White House calling on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring corporations that receive government contracts to disclose their political spending. More than 550,000 petition signatures were delivered in support of this executive order, collected by a collaborative effort of more than 50 organizations.
In addition to leaders from organized labor, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection groups, PFAW Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks (pictured below), was one of the individuals to speak at the event. Highlighting the fact that transparency is essential to accountability, Mr. Brooks and other speakers reiterated the strong message sent by the half a million petition signers.
President Obama has shared his support for reform on numerous occasions. Most recently, in his State of the Union address this January, the president called attention to the issue by speaking out against “dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” Obama went on to call for a “better politics.”
Rallies like the one held in Washington today also occurred in nearly 60 cities across 28 states, all encouraging the president to use his authority and issue an executive order to help bring about that “better politics.”
Have you added your name to the petition yet?
While likely presidential candidates chase billionaires they hope will bankroll their campaigns, activists in states across the country are ramping up a very different kind of campaign: grassroots organizing to restore some common sense to the rules governing money in elections. In March alone, we’ve seen significant victories in the movement to get big money out of politics.
Last week, following sustained advocacy by PFAW activists and allies, the New Hampshire Senate unanimously passed a bill in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC. If it passes in the House, New Hampshire will become the 17th state calling for an amendment. PFAW’s New Hampshire Campaign Coordinator Lindsay Jakows, who has been leading our on-the-ground effort in the state, said the vote shows that “our state senators are listening to, and responding to, the voices of their constituents.” And after passing 67 town resolutions in support of an amendment – including 11 just this month – the voices of New Hampshire constituents on this issue are crystal clear.
On the other side of the country, local leaders in Washington and Montana are also making important strides. Earlier this month, Washington’s state Senate unanimously passed a disclosure bill that would expose the spending of some of the largest political donors. PFAW activists in the state made calls to their senators, urging them to vote for the bill to strengthen transparency in Washington’s politics. And in Montana a disclosure bill that would help shine a light on “dark money” in state elections passed in the state House this weekend following calls from PFAW activists.
All of these victories share the same core ingredient: people power.
The sustained drumbeat of calls and emails from local advocates, which led to important wins in three states just this month, show what’s possible when grassroots leaders organize to take their democracy back from corporations and billionaires.
This op-ed was originally published at OtherWords.com.
If 2014 was the “Year of Dark Money” in elections, then 2016 is likely to be the “Year of Way, Way More Dark Money” — that is, unless something big changes soon.
One of the most troubling aspects of the explosion of big money in politics in recent years is the rapid rise in spending by groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.
Right now, corporations and super-rich political donors like the Koch brothers can funnel millions into elections through groups that hide their identities, leaving voters and candidates unable to tell who’s behind the attack ads they buy in bulk, or what their agendas are.
More than $600 million of this so-called “dark money” has already been poured into our federal elections, and that’s only going to increase as we ramp up for the next presidential race.
Americans aren’t happy about this.
When President Barack Obama called in January for a “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” he wasn’t just speaking for himself.
He was tapping into a deep-seated unease among everyday Americans who know that our political system can’t work for us when it’s awash in millions of dollars of untraceable money.
But President Obama can do more than simply call attention to the problem. He can take a big step toward fixing it by issuing an executive order requiring companies with government contracts to disclose their political spending.
That would mean that many of the nation’s biggest corporations — like Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Chrysler, and Verizon, just to name a few — would have to let the American people know about their political spending. That would turn some of that dark money into plain old “money.”
As The Washington Post editorial board wrote earlier this year, disclosure is “the backbone of accountability.” The public needs to be able to follow the money trail, see who’s behind political spending, and call them out when they don’t like what they see.
Even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate political spending with its 2010 Citizens United decision, has underscored the need for disclosure. Transparency, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the ruling, “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
Today, only one-fourth of the country’s largest government contractors disclose their contributions to outside groups. That means that many of the corporations receiving the biggest government contracts — from taxpayer money — are likely doing a great deal of secret spending to influence elections.
President Obama is right: Ordinary Americans are tired of being pulled “into the gutter.” We’re tired of seeing corporations rig our political system with untold amounts of money from undisclosed sources.
The White House should issue an executive order to let voters see for themselves who’s trying to buy political influence to distort our democracy.
What are these corporations trying to hide? And why should We the People hand over our taxpayer money to help them hide it?
On Tuesday the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal revealed that in 2012, the Online Consumers Network, an “arm of the online payday loan empire industry,” gave $200,000 to two dark money groups connected to top House Republicans during the industry’s push to roll back the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
In other words, two years after the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited outside spending to influence elections, payday loan interests were funneling dark money political spending to benefit officials who could help in their efforts to fight oversight and regulation.
While this is far from surprising in light of the current state of our campaign finance laws, it flies in the face of how regulation should work. From the chemical industry ramping up political spending as Congress takes up a bill overhauling the regulation of chemicals, to the payday loan industry throwing money against oversight efforts, industry interests should never be driving the legislative or regulatory process. The public good should be.
Fighting to make governmental action about protecting ordinary Americans rather than protecting the bottom line of major corporations shouldn’t be controversial. It’s simply expecting our political system to work as it was intended: for the people.
On Monday, Wisconsin became the 25th so-called “right to work” state when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law that undermines workers’ rights and is likely to reduce wages in the state.
This divisive bill, which would have more accurately been called a “right to work for less” bill, was fast-tracked by Republican leaders despite being met with intense resistance and had the support of major right-wing funders. Two outside groups in favor of “right to work” legislation, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, spent over $5.5 million in support of Scott Walker’s reelection bid. Analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that since 2013, Republican legislators in the state have accepted “$26 in contributions from business interests for every $1 in labor contributions.” And the right-wing Bradley Foundation has given millions to groups promoting “right to work” bills, including to a number of groups in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin and across the country, when people can “follow the money” and see who is bankrolling elected officials and what their agenda is, it changes how they evaluate the bills being considered. But today it’s not always possible to follow the money. Major corporations can funnel an unlimited amount of money through “dark money” groups to influence the political process, and they can do so secretly.
President Obama can, and should, take a big step to shine a light on dark money by issuing an executive order requiring companies that contract with the federal government, companies like Verizon and Lockheed Martin and Exxon Mobil, to disclose their political spending. No matter the issue, voters deserve to know who is trying to buy influence in their state or national government.
Yesterday People For the American way joined more than fifty other organizations in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose all of their political spending.
Right now, corporations with government contracts are able to funnel unlimited sums of dark money to influence the elections of those who can put pressure on the officials deciding who is awarded future contracts. Contracts should be awarded to those best for the job, not those who can shell out the most political cash.
But with the stroke of a pen, President Obama could require that government contractors disclose their political spending. This would increase transparency and accountability in our democracy and bring us closer to the “better politics” the president called for in his State of the Union address – a politics in which we “spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
And we are indeed drowning in dark money. In 2014's ten most competitive Senate contests, more than 70 percent of outside money spent in support of the winner was from dark money groups.
As the letter notes,
Six years into your presidency, and five years after the Supreme Court issued its tragically misguided ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, we’re now living in a Wild West campaign spending world… Against this backdrop, it is imperative that you act.
In an interview with Vox released today, President Obama expressed his support for constitutional remedies to our country’s worsening money in politics problem.
The president said:
I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it.
This isn’t the first time the president has weighed in on the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. In 2012 during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, President Obama made a splash when he said that “over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United.” As the Vox article notes, today’s comments go a step beyond his previous remarks.
Agree with the president? Share our graphic and show your support:
You can watch the full interview with President Obama here:
PFAW activists joined with allies from Public Citizen, Open Democracy, and others last Thursday at public hearings on New Hampshire House and Senate bills calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
About 50 supporters of a constitutional amendment attended each hearing, creating standing room only and overflow in the small room reserved for the House bill hearing.
Speakers included small business owners, activists who passed local town resolutions in favor of an amendment, and high school students. Not a single person testified in opposition to the proposed legislation, underscoring the deep support among Americans of all backgrounds for fixing our big money system.
The bills (HB 371 and SB 136) call for the state legislature to recommend a constitutional amendment to the state’s congressional delegation, as well as for public hearings in geographically diverse areas across the state to decide the exact language for such an amendment.
A committee in the New Hampshire House will vote on the bill in an executive session on Wednesday afternoon, while the appropriate Senate committee has not yet set a date for a vote. PFAW activists and allies will be back at the state capitol next week for a lobby day to meet with key representatives and senators on Wednesday, February 4th.
Interested in joining us? For more information and to RSVP, email Lindsay Jakows at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Monday the push for the Democracy For All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and allow legislators to put reasonable limits on money in elections, became a bipartisan effort in Congress when Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) signed on as a cosponsor of the legislation.
While this is a historic step that deserves celebration, in many ways it is long overdue. Washington is the only place where the fight to get big money out of politics is a partisan issue, and it hasn’t always been that way.
Similar amendments proposed in the past have found bipartisan support in Congress, including from Rep. Jones. Republican elected officials across the country have been advocating at the local and state level to get big money out of politics. In fact, a recent report from Free Speech For People highlights the more than 100 Republican officials nationwide who favor an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
Among voters, it’s also a bipartisan movement, with Americans of all political stripes speaking out against a democracy unduly influenced by corporations and billionaires. A 2014 poll found that in Senate battleground states, almost three in four voters favor a constitutional amendment to undo the harm of decisions like Citizens United, including majorities in “even the reddest states.” This support did not waver among Republican voters polled: amendment supporters outnumbered opponents by a 26 percent margin.
Still, Rep. Jones’ decision to become a cosponsor of the Democracy For All Amendment is an important step forward. Money in politics is an issue that affects all of us, and one that Americans of all political backgrounds feel strongly about. It’s only fitting that our federal elected officials in both parties listen to the voices of their constituents and join the movement to take our democratic process back from the grips of wealthy special interests.
On Wednesday (1/21), at a press event on Capitol Hill, Congressional leaders focused on solutions to the money in politics problem by announcing the reintroduction of a host of pro-democracy bills in the 114th Congress, including small donor empowerment, disclosure, and a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. For the first time, members of the House and Senate introduced these separate bills together as a democracy reform package, emphasizing in their remarks that the individual pieces of legislation reinforce one another in creating a democracy truly of, by and for the people.
One key theme of the event was the American public’s growing appreciation that money in politics is an underlying, systemic issue that must be addressed in order to confront the many important challenges of our time. States and municipalities across the country are already passing resolutions and ballot initiatives supporting reform, and millions of Americans are on record in favor of these solutions.
Reform groups are also coming together around a range of approaches to tackling big money in politics. More than 130 organizations have signed onto a Unity Statement of Principles, expressing their support for the values underlying many of the solutions discussed at the event today. The unity statement serves as a foundation for collaboration among diverse organizations, including environmental groups, labor unions, social and economic justice groups, business groups, and communities of faith. By mobilizing these broad constituencies around a common set of solutions a political force with the potential to enact pro-democracy reforms can be set in motion.
Members that spoke included Sen. Tom Udall, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Rep. John Sarbanes, Rep. David Price, and Rep. Michael Capuano. The bills reintroduced include the Democracy for All amendment, DISCLOSE Act, Government by the People Act, Real Time Transparency Act, and Shareholder Protection Act, among others. In the coming months PFAW will continue to work with a broad set of partners to mobilize around these solutions in Congress.
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Five years ago this week, the Supreme Court handed down its damaging decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The ruling, which allowed wealthy interests to buy unprecedented influence in elections, was and still is deeply unpopular. But the issue of money in politics remains, for some people, relegated to a category of "someone else's issue" -- the policy wonks in Washington, the researchers who spend long hours sifting through the latest campaign data. "It's their issue," we think.
In reality, the decisions like Citizens United that paved the way for the big-money election system we have today affect our lives every day, even when those connections can be hard to see.
Last month, Demos released a report laying bare some of those links, especially as they affect people of color. Their analysis highlighted how big money in politics undermines racial equality:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win.
The report point outs that in some ways, this is not new: As long as our country has been a country, people of color have been shortchanged by our democratic system. Our history is littered with violent retaliation and unrelenting roadblocks for many who tried to actively participate in our democracy. But those setting a political agenda that shortchanges people of color haven't always had unlimited billionaire and corporate political dollars backing them up.
What does this mean in real people's lives? It means more mass incarceration, for one, the harm of which African Americans disproportionately bear. Wealthy people are more likely than low-income people to support the construction of more prisons, and studies have found that the rich have greater influence on policy outcomes. Private prison companies, whose bottom lines depend on getting people behind bars, spend millions to influence policymakers, and groups like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed for tougher sentencing laws. But it's often people of color who pay the price, when family members and friends suddenly disappear from their communities.
It also means a stagnant minimum wage, which women of color are disproportionately likely to be earning. While the public strongly supports raising the minimum wage, groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which opposes raising it, can afford to pour millions into elections and hold serious sway with lawmakers. Though not immediately apparent, there is a direct connection to the amount of money a low-income woman takes home in her paycheck and the Supreme Court decisions governing our big-money political system.
And the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, money in politics cannot be "someone else's issue." Because it distorts who is heard by our elected officials, it affects what's in your paycheck, who ends up in prison, what kind of health care we have access to, what kind of environment we leave for our children, and much more.
That's why one piece of the larger fight for racial justice must be reforming the rules governing money in elections. It's fitting that we mark the fifth anniversary of Citizens United on the same week we remember the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, in his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, King said, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
In the wake of Citizens United, the struggle to make those promises real has become even more urgent.
It’s hard to know where to begin when running down the list of harmful special interest giveaways in the omnibus spending bill narrowly passed by the House yesterday. Earlier this week, we wrote about a rider in the bill that would allow the amount of money rich donors can give to political parties to skyrocket. The legislation moving through Congress also includes a provision that would have the effect of allowing mountaintop mining companies to keep filling Appalachian streams with toxic waste. Yet another rider is a “Wall Street giveaway,” actually drafted by Citigroup’s lobbyists, that would repeal a piece of financial regulation and let banks take part in more kinds of high-risk trading deals with government backed money.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren railed against the Wall Street rider on the Senate floor:
[Americans] see a Congress that works just fine for the big guys, but it won’t lift a finger to help them. If big companies can deploy armies of lawyers and lobbyists to get the Congress to vote for special deals that benefit themselves, then we will simply confirm the view of the American people that the system is rigged.
It is, as Sen. Warren says, hard not to think that “the system is rigged” when members of Congress use a spending bill to sneak through major policy shifts that benefit wealthy political donors, Wall Street executives, and big businesses, while leaving the majority of Americans with an even weaker political voice.
This is especially true when you consider that those who voted for the rider-filled spending deal were, by and large, the members who received bigger contributions from the benefitting industries. The Washington Post compared the House spending bill votes with Center for Responsive Politics data on campaign contributions to each representative from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries. What they found is disheartening, but not surprising:
On average, members of Congress who voted yes received $322,000 from those industries. Those who voted no? $162,000.
And that doesn’t even take into account the dark money whose source is unknown to the public (but likely known by the officials who benefit from it).
It’s one more example of the influence that money can buy in our current system, where big gifts from corporate spenders pave the way for corporate political victories. When Wall Street lobbyists can literally write the laws they want, no matter the impact on ordinary Americans, it’s clear that we need serious reform to the rules governing money in politics.