Money in Politics, Citizens United and the Path Ahead – Where to Start?

October 20, 2011
Guest Post

By Mark Hays, Campaign Coordinator for Public Citizen’s Democracy is for People Campaign, which is building public support for a constitutional amendment that would address the impact of Citizens United v. FEC by restoring the First Amendment and fair elections to the people

Unless you’re stuck in a windowless room reviewing case law, with no line out to the “interwebs” to speak of (and in which you case you probably aren’t reading this now), you know of the quiet desperation felt by hundreds of millions of Americans. The feeling that there are big problems with fairness and justice in our economy and our political process has bubbled to the surface through the Occupy Wall Street movement, now headed into its second month. 

Even in the internet age, the dynamism of ordinary individuals physically occupying the town squares in New York, Boston, Phoenix, Sacramento, and many other places – with their feet, sleeping bags, anger and hope – excites our imaginations and taps a deep desire to make the experience of democracy once again something that is authentic and human-scaled.

There’s a lot of talk about what the occupiers “want.” Setting aside the question of whether issuing demands is something the occupiers want or should want, it is pretty clear that at least one theme is on the minds of the folks in our city squares. On cardboard boxes, sandwich placards, t-shirts and even on their own skin, people are expressing outrage about the corrosive effect of big money in politics, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.

This outrage is well founded –  in a report Public Citizen published one year after the Court’s disastrous decision – we found that spending by outside groups jumped to nearly $300 million in the 2010 election cycle, from just $68.9 million in 2006.  The donors for nearly half of this independent money spent remain undisclosed. And, that’s just a taste of what’s to come.  The influx of independent expenditures in allowed by Citizens United will bump up election campaign spending to record levels in 2012; by some account to as much as $8 billion, dwarfing previous records.

We want to get big money out of politics, but do that, you have to engage the very system that is weakened and undermined by that money. The deck seems stacked.  How does an ordinary person find a way to make that change happen?

Some could take a page from Cornel West, the Princeton professor and outspoken civil rights activist who, along with a group of other activists, took his concerns about Citizens United literally to the Court. West engaged in an act of civil disobedience and was arrested this Monday during a protest on the steps of the Supreme Court.

We think Professor West, along with the occupiers, are on to something: action could be the path to our satisfaction (hmm, awkward?  We press on…).

At Public Citizen, we’re pursuing a host of reforms to address the big problems that moneyed interests pose to our political system.  We’re pushing for greater disclosure of campaign contributions and outside expenditures. We’re also advocating for reforms in the corporate world that would require corporations to get approval from shareholders before spending money from corporate treasuries on election-related activities. 

And, because of transformative effect the Court’s disastrous decision has had on our ability to effectively regulate campaign spending, we’re building a national campaign to call for a constitutional amendment that would reverse the effects of Citizens United and ensure that people, not corporations, have the ultimate say in our democracy.

A road to amendment could be a long one, so we’re aiming for a fast start. Jan. 21, 2012 is the two-year anniversary of Citizens United. On that day, we’ll be out in the streets with a panoply of progressive organizations and activists to make the anniversary into a national day of protest.  We’ll also be launching efforts in key states to advance measures calling for a constitutional amendment. To prepare, onWednesday, Nov. 9, our members, supporters and allies are hosting organizing parties to engage others and start planning actions for the big day.  

It could be tricky business, seeking a constitutional remedy for Citizens United.  But, for starters, we know the Constitution was meant to be amended (last time we checked).  And, truthfully, the Court hasn’t left many other options.  While some might hesitate to start down this road, others aren’t waiting.  They’ve grabbed their camp chairs, extra cardboard and most importantly, a sense of hope – something small, easy to pack, but truly powerful.  It’s a great place to start.

We hope you can join us on Nov. 9 or Jan. 21!  Click here to find a party near you, or sign up to host a party on Nov. 9. For more details on house party planning, check out our local organizing toolkit, and for materials to build for Jan. 21, download our flyer for the 21st, or our petition sheet to circulate at events.