WASHINGTON -- What do you do when people are growing increasingly angry about the influence of money on the political system -- but that very same political system is too co-opted to care?
Common Cause on Tuesday announced an attempt to put a measure on the ballot in all 50 states that would allow voters to constructively express that anger -- and forcefully express their view that unlimited spending is hijacking our democracy.
"In the spirit of Occupy, we are creating the tools for as close to a national referendum as we can," said Bob Edgar, president of the nonpartisan government watchdog group.
"The potential for corruption and scandal is now the worst it's been since Watergate and Nixon's bag men," said Robert Reich, who chairs Common Cause's board. "All this is just going to get worse unless people do something dramatically to stop it."
With unlimited individual and corporate funds already rocking the political world -- as unaccountable millions pour into the GOP primaries -- critics have focused their ire on the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which made it all possible.
Citizens United was the most momentous of a series of Supreme Court decisions that blew an enormous hole through the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms. (Would you prefer that Stephen Colbert explained all this to you? Then see our five-part series.)
Citing its reading of the Constitution, the Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled that corporations have the same rights to political speech as people, and that there could be no limits to independent political spending.
One way to overrule Citizens United, therefore -- barring a new precedent from a different Supreme Court -- is to amend the Constitution.
The only process that's ever been used successfully to amend the Constitution is for an amendment to pass the House and Senate by a two-thirds majority, then win approval from the states. (The second method involves the states calling for a Constitutional Convention, but that has never happened.)
So what Common Cause is proposing is not an actual referendum, but to find some way to begin pressuring Congress to act -- and give voters some way to vent in November 2012. That would generally involve putting a measure called a "voter instruction" on the ballot in the states where that's possible, either by voter initiative or action by the state legislature.
The instructions would demand that Congress adopt a constitutional amendment countermanding the two basic assertions of the Court in Citizens United. And while such an instruction wouldn't be binding, the theory is that it would hard to ignore if it came from enough states.
"Reform is not going to come from inside, because insiders all benefit from the current system," Reich said. "It's our view that it will take a constitutional amendment to put our democracy back on track."
Giving voters the "concrete tools they need to force the issue into the 2012 election" is key, Reich said. "We think this strategy has the potential to reengage voters who are fed up with the political system."
Common Cause sees getting Citizens United overturned as essential. "It is impossible to make progress on any major issues," Edgar said, "unless the people take back politics from the moneyed interests."
The group's new website, Amend2012.org, launches on Wednesday.
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