The Citizens United decision was to our democracy what congressional repeal of the Glass-Steagall regulation of banking was to our economy. In both cases, money had already eroded the regulatory system. But the formal repeal of regulation removed any sense of constraint.
Now, Montana’s Supreme Court has offered the Supreme Court a chance to reconsider its folly. In defiance of Citizens United, the court upheld a 100-year-old state law that bans corporate money in campaigns, arguing that, given Montana’s early history of corporate money corrupting elected officials, the state ban served a compelling interest. As Attorney General Steve Bullock noted, “Our legislature, our judges, down to the local county assessors, were almost bought and paid for. Mark Twain even said that, you know, the amount of money coming in in Montana makes the smell of corruption almost sweet.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
The Supreme Court immediately issued a stay of the court ruling, pending a formal appeal. But in a separate note, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer suggested the Montana case offered the Supreme Court’s five-person majority a change to reconsider a bad decision.
“Montana’s experience and experience elsewhere,” they wrote, “make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’ ” (Note the echo of Kennedy’s words in Citizens United.) The appeal “will give the court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.”
Across the country, a fierce reaction to the corruption of our politics has begun to build. Some 20 senators have joined in co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The New Mexico legislature just passed a resolution calling on Congress to move to amend. Similar resolutions have been introduced in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Maine. Major cities — New York, Portland, and Los Angeles — have also acted.
Since a constitutional amendment would take years to pass, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has introduced a bill requiring that super PACs and shadow groups disclose donors and spending every 24 hours on the Web. The groups’ TV ads would have to list the top five donors. Corporations and unions would have to detail their political spending to stockholders and members. This modest effort to bring transparency to an opaque process faces entrenched Republican opposition.
We don’t know who will win the elections this fall. But we know that the flood of independent and secret money will be unprecedented, funding salvos of negative ads that will foul the airwaves and disgust voters. And as voters increasingly view our politics as a corrupted playground for deep pocket donors, the Supreme Court majority might want to reconsider its unpopular decision.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the author of the book “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”