by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
January 7, 2012
RECLAIMING DEMOCRACY BEGINS WITH GETTING MONEY OUT OF POLITICS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The people who came to the Occupy protests and encampments around the country this past fall had many different causes they supported. But nearly all were in agreement about the one big thing that they see wrong with America -- the domination of the political process by monied interests.
Two years ago this month, on Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court handed what was arguably one of the worst rulings in its history - worse than the Dred Scott case, worse than Plessy v. Ferguson, worse than Bush v. Gore.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the conservative majority of the court struck down a major portion of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law, saying that it violated the free-speech right of corporations to engage in the public debate of political issues.
As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, "While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."
"Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it," Stevens wrote. "They cannot vote or run for office Š the financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process."
By upholding the false principle that money equals free speech and that putting limits on the financing of political campaigns is unconstitutional, Stevens called the majority opinion a dangerous rejection of common sense that "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation."
It's hard to disagree. It is absurd to think that corporations should have the same First Amendment right as individuals to spend money and advocate political and policy positions during election seasons, and that unlimited corporate funding for the candidates and causes they favor at election time is free speech.
Corporations already dominate our political process through political action committees, fundraisers, high-paid lobbyists and personal contributions by corporate insiders. But thanks to the Citizen United decision, corporations can also form front groups known as super PACs, political action committees where individuals and corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.
Under current federal election law, an individual can donate no more than $2,500 to a candidate for federal office per election. An individual can donate no more than $30,800 to a national party committee a year - otherwise known as "soft money." A person can also give only no more than $5,000 to a PAC and no more than $70,800 to all PACs and parties in a year. All this is tracked by the Federal Election Commission.
Thanks to the Citizens United decision, super PACs face no such restrictions.
A super PAC is not allowed to advocate for a particular candidate, and it is not allowed to have contact with, or coordinate activity with, a particular candidate. But it can say anything it wants to about a particular candidate's opponents, and it does not have reveal their donor lists.
Just as everyone predicted, huge amounts of money - nearly all of it supporting conservative candidates and causes - began pouring into races all over the nation once the modest curbs on corporate campaign spending were lifted.
We got our first look at this tsunami of cash in the 2010 mid-term elections, but this year's elections will shatter every record for campaign spending, with as much as $7 billion spent on federal-level campaigns.
In Iowa, the super PACs outspent Mitt Romney's campaign by a 2-to-1 margin and the airwaves were full of attack ads. The same rate of super PAC spending holds true in New Hampshire, and in the rest of the early primary states.
The flood of negative ads won't end when the GOP decides on its nominee. They will simply shift their fire, and start ttacking President Obama.
Nearly all of that money comes from the richest 1 percent of Americans. The people writing the checks to the super PACs are not spending their millions merely encourage good government. They are spending to keep the government we have now, a government that caters almost exclusively to the needs of the 1 percent at the expense of everyone else.
It cannot be said enough. The only legal obligation that corporations have is to make more money for their shareholders. With that kind of mandate, it's easy to see the kind of economic policies and political candidates that would be supported would be the candidates and policies that enable corporations to make the most money.
Support is growing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United and honesty and integrity to elections. As Stevens wrote in his dissent of Citizens United, "Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races."
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind-Vt.), recently proposed what he calls the Saving American Democracy Amendment. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., has sponsored similar legislation in the House.
Both would make clear that for-profit entities such as corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as people and that corporations may be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.
They also would reaffirm the right of Congress to enact campaign finance laws that limit the amount of money individuals can spend to influence elections, and require political action committees to disclose their donations and operate with transparency.
Local communities are also supporting similar measures. It is a hopeful sign that people are realizing how corrupt the political process is now, and that getting big money out of politics is the first and most important step toward restoring our democracy.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.