Co-authored with Blair Bowie, NJPIRG Federal Democracy Advocate
A new Washington Post- ABC News poll shows that almost 7 out of 10 voters believe that super PACs, the independent expenditure only committees created in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, should be illegal. Super PACs are not responsible for all problems with American democracy, however, they do amplify those troubles so it is no surprise that the public is crying out in opposition to them. Unfortunately, due to the Court’s backwards interpretation of the first amendment, we cannot legislate away super PACs today. However, there are some very important steps that every level of government – from your city council to the White House - should take right now to mitigate the impact of super PACs before the 2012 election.
There are three main problems with super PACs: unlimited money, corporate money, and secret money.
Unlimited Money: Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited funds from any given single source, which allows corporations and the ultra wealthy to directly translate economic success into political power. U.S. PIRG and Demos’ recent report Auctioning Democracy found that 96% of all super PAC funds came in contributions of $10,000 or more from just 1,096 sources. Forget the 1%, that political elite is actually the equivalent of .000351% of the population. In other words, unless you have $10,000 stashed away in a cookie jar to give to a political campaign, your contribution may be severely minimized.
The premise of American democracy is “one person, one vote” and it is important that this principle applies to all moments in the electoral process. Money is crucial to the success of a candidate’s campaign, from being able to get their message out to their constituents, to qualifying for the ballot, to winning the seat. It is fundamentally anti-democratic for one actor to have more of a say in this process than another because of the size of its bank account. To correct this, we need a campaign finance system with contribution limits that the majority of individuals could reasonably afford. Super PACs make that impossible.
Corporate Money: For years, corporations have had undue influence in our political process. From hiring scores of lobbyists, to filling the campaign coffers of candidates, to sponsoring official events for the major parties, business corporations have left nothing to chance in their attempts to ensure that elected officials meet their needs before yours and mine.
For example, while polling shows that two-thirds of Americans believe that corporations should pay more taxes, there have been no floor votes in Congress on major proposals that would force corporations to pay their fair share. In fact, neither major party has moved to introduce a bill that would achieve what the vast majority of Americans seems to want. Meanwhile a new report from U.S. PIRG and Citizens for Tax Justice found that the thirty most aggressive corporate tax dodgers have given to 98% of current members of congress. The top recipients of that money were leaders in both parties and members of the committees that oversee the tax code. You connect the dots.
Like the unlimited money problem, this problem has been exacerbated by Citizens United and related decisions as corporations can spend directly from their treasury to influence elections.
Secret Money: Transparency has long been recognized across the aisle as absolutely critical to a healthy democracy. In fact, transparency (specifically, corporate disclosure) was assumed in the logic that led the majority to its decision in Citizens United. In that opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
It is unclear in what country (or on what planet) the Justices thought they were living back in January 2010, but the laws of the United States are not up to speed with that ideal. In fact, there are many ways that corporations and special interests can influence elections in secret, and many of those doors were unlocked by the Supreme Court itself.
Super PACs can take money from sources that do not reveal their original donors, like 501(c)(4) non-profit corporations and trade associations, like the Chamber of Commerce. Those sources may also go ahead and influence elections on their own, without going through super PACs, as the Chamber did in 2010 when it jumped to the top of list of outside spenders, out spent only by the major party juggernauts themselves.
So those are the problems which have been magnified and brought into the public eye by our super PAC friends. But you didn’t need to be convinced that there was something we needed to fix, so let’s get to the solutions already.
Local governments – Ultimately, we can only get out of this judicial rut by amending the Constitution to clarify to the Supreme Court that the first amendment was never meant to be used as a tool for special interests to co-opt our democracy. That’s a tall order and a long term campaign, but it can and must start at the grassroots level. Cities and towns across the country are passing resolutions through their municipal governments to go on record against Citizens United and call for an amendment to restore democracy. Last month, around 90 towns in Vermont did just that. U.S.PIRG is launching a campaign with a broad coalition to pass 100 more during a national resolutions week this summer. If you want to lead the effort in your town, let us know and we’ll give you the tools.
State Governments –
-Like local governments, state governments are also going on the record against corporate control of our democracy by passing these resolutions. As of right now, Hawaii and New Mexico are the only two to take this step, so call your state representative and ask her to get on it!
- If the U.S. Supreme Court is going to say that corporations are people, a proposition best described by the Montana Supreme Court as, “an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species,” then let’s at least let the human beings who own the corporations have a say in whether or not they engage in politics. Over half of American households own stock in major corporations, whether directly through a portfolio or indirectly through a pension or 401(k). The after-tax profits of these corporations rightfully belong to those shareholders. Several states are considering laws that would require publicly traded corporations to seek shareholder approval before spending in elections. Others are considering requiring in-state corporations to disclose that spending to their shareholders. Either would add a much needed layer of accountability to what has otherwise become an avenue for corporate CEOs to use the corporate treasury as their personal political slush fund.
Federal Agencies - In the new frontier of post-Citizens United campaigns, we need every part of government to be vigilant in fighting the threats to democracy that fall under its jurisdiction. Here are a sampling of the actions our agencies can take:
The Securities and Exchange Commission – The SEC can and should require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending to their shareholders.
The Federal Communications Commission – The FCC should create an online tool to make information on who is funding political ads easily accessible to the general public.
The Federal Election Commission – Should tighten rules on coordination between candidates and super PACs and prohibit super PACs from taking money from secret sources.
The White House – The President should:
Use his constitutional authority to replace the five out of six members of Federal Election Commission whose terms have expired.
Issue an executive order requiring any government contractor to disclose its political spending.