In the first two quarters of 2011, President Obama raised $155 million dollars, an amount that is substantially more than what all the Republican candidates raised combined. And yet, thanks to the Roberts Supreme Court we don’t (and probably won’t ever) know who among the candidates has the most money behind their candidacy and where exactly that money comes from. This is just one of the many consequences of the Citizens United decision, a dramatic assault on American democracy that overturned more than a century of campaign finance precedent.
It’s been nearly two years since Chief Justice John Roberts and his band of right-wing brothers held that corporations had the same right as individuals to contribute directly to political campaigns and to participate in direct advocacy on their behalf. It was in that same case that the court decided such contributions should have no limits and need not be disclosed. Not only did the court turn the spigot on full blast; it hid its source almost entirely from view. Though the court upheld the concept of disclosure, the ruling allowed 501(c)(4) organizations to raise and spend unlimited corporate money — and those organizations, by law, need not disclose.
Of course, we saw some of the effect of Citizens United in 2010, when 15 percent of all money raised came from contributions that were only made possible by the court’s ruling. But as I noted in January, the midterm elections, because they were the first to be held in the wake of the ruling, were just a test case. Conservatives and their corporate allies were dipping their toes in the water, gauging the legal boundaries of the new landscape. They liked what they found. Now that they know there are essentially no boundaries to speak of, undisclosed money raised in unlimited sums has come to define how elections work.
For example, American Crossroads, the group headed by Karl Rove, intends to raise and spend $240 million for the Republican Party in 2012. Groups with the backing of the Koch brothers plan to raise an additional $200 million for the party. That represents substantially more than what John McCain spent on his entire candidacy in 2008. According to the New York Times, in addition to spending substantially on television advertising, these groups plan “to put far more money into voter contact, social media and grassroots outreach, hoping to buttress the [Republican] party’s own get-out-the-vote work.”
Of course, this kind of corporate overreach doesn’t just affect presidential politics. In just a six-week period, the 12-member supercommittee, appointed by Congress to cut the deficit by more than $1 trillion, has been lobbied by nearly 200 companies, which have raised untold sums to fill committee members’ coffers. In the 20 days in August after members were appointed, 19 major PACs contributed $83,000 to all but two members of the committee, according to the Sunlight Foundation. And that’s just the tip of an iceberg, much of which will remain hidden from view.
This toxicity seeps into state-level politics, too. In Ohio, where voters will have the chance to overturn anti-labor legislation today, millions of out-of-state dollars have poured in. There’s Liz Cheney’s group, Alliance for America’s Future, which according to the Nation’s John Nichols, is part of a shadowy network of campaign organizations, most of which do not have to disclose their donors. Cheney herself has said that her groups may spend as much as $15 million in the battle.
Because the Supreme Court has endorsed allowing the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate electoral contests, there is little that Congress or the president can do to reverse what former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold called a “lawless decision,” save for advocating a constitutional amendment. Fortunately, there is a wide array of public-interest groups ready to step up to the challenge; and amendments have been proposed by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) and Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). These would once again give Congress the authority to limit how money is raised and spent in elections.
A constitutional amendment strategy is, as always, an incredibly difficult vehicle for reform, requiring approval from two-thirds of both chambers of Congress and 38 states. But as Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University, points out “American citizens have repeatedly amended the Constitution to defend democracy when the Supreme Court acts in collusion with democracy’s enemies.” An amendment campaign can offer extraordinary value as a tool for education and mobilization, serving as the fuel for a powerful movement that can force the political class to shift its priorities.
With thousands already gathered around the country as part of Occupy Wall Street, an amendment strategy could sharpen their rallying cry. Many regional Occupy movements, including Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Boulder, have already made a constitutional amendment ending corporate personhood one of their key demands.
Taking corporate money and power head-on is the goal of the We the People campaign, which aims to bring progressive media and advocacy groups together to challenge the Citizens United status quo (a campaign I started with Jim Hightower and Jay Harris). The idea behind We the People, and central to the many groups that are participating, is simple: When our nation arrives at a level of corruption we cannot bear, we shouldn’t.