Eight Years After Citizen's United It's Time for Bold Ways to Fix Democracy

• Jan 20, 2018

Liz Kennedy and Alex Tausanovitch, The Hill

Sunday will mark eight years since the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Citizens United, in which it declared that “ingratiation and access” are “not corruption.” The court struck down a ban on corporate political spending, laying a path that would eventually lead to billions of dollars in campaign ads, principally paid for by wealthy individuals and special interests, run through super PACs and dark money organizations.

There is much that can and has been said about the negative consequences of that decision. Even the five-justice majority agreed, “If elected officials succumb to improper influences…if they surrender their best judgment…if they put expediency before principle, then surely there is cause for concern.” Americans deserve representation that gives fair weight to their interests, regardless of whether they can afford to hire lobbyists, give money to campaigns, or buy political ads.

On that score, the last eight years have demonstrated ample “cause for concern.” But although Citizens United is a substantial roadblock on the path to political reform, it also left many avenues open. The good news is citizens and civic leaders are increasingly demanding action to fight corruption and to safeguard elections so that money does not undermine fair representation.

We have written about a series of solutions that have the potential to transform accountability in government and shift power from the privileged few back into the hands of the general public. One of these strong, clear solutions include barring members of Congress from accepting contributions from the interests that they oversee in committee, a proposal that 88 percent of voters, including 86 percent of Trump voters, support.

Another solution is prohibiting lobbyists from fundraising for members of Congress. Business and industry outspend any other source of lobbying at a ratio of 34 to one, but free speech doesn’t mean checkbook advocacy. Matching small donor contributions so that the voices of the public, not just big donors, drive campaigns and public policy.

We can also increase donor disclosure of money spent on politics, not only so that the American people can “make informed decisions,” in the words of an approving majority in Citizens United, but also to safeguard our national security. This is an imperative that has grown even stronger in the wake of recent revelations that money from the Russian government may have illegally flowed into our last election through the National Rifle Association.

For leaders willing to embrace these solutions, opportunities abound. Polling shows that the public believes that the political system is dysfunctional, with 65 percent of Americans assigning a lot of blame to “wealthy political donors” and “money in politics” and an incredible 96 percent believing that money in politics is at least somewhat to blame. The public is eager for leaders who are willing to take on this problem, as demonstrated by the efficacy of President Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp,” a promise that only 20 percent think that Trump has made any progress on.

While the Republican-led Congress has devoted virtually all its energy to providing tax cuts to corporate donors, state and local governments are making progress on reforming how their politics work. Oregon is inching closer to implementing citizen-financed elections, not long after a similar policy was moved forward by a unanimous vote of the D.C. City Council. California recently passed one of the country’s strongest laws requiring transparency for campaign advertising. Across the country, citizen-driven ballot initiatives are aiming to rewrite rules for ethics, lobbying and campaign spending.

Meanwhile, civic-minded leaders in Congress are preparing for the day when the logjam breaks and Americans demand solutions to get government working for them are met. In both the House and the Senate, legislation has been introduced to push back against the undue influence of lobbyists and special interests, enhance donor disclosure, and fight foreign influence in our elections. More such proposals are on the way, awaiting only a leadership with the courage to take on the entrenched status quo.

For many years, political reform has been on the backburner, hampered by a misguided belief that the public simply didn’t care. In the wake of false promises to “drain the swamp” and years of money in politics scandals, politicians are running out of excuses for inaction. Citizens will keep demanding to restructure the rules of our politics and policymaking in order to rebalance power and incentives until there is a real change in who has a voice in our state and national governance.

Liz Kennedy is senior director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. Alex Tausanovitch is associate director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress.

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You can find the full article by Liz Kennedy and Alex Tausanovitch here.

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