Remember the maxim, "Money is the root of all evil?" It is certainly true with respect to our electoral politics. While it is necessary for candidates to raise funds for election campaigns, the fact is the system is now out of control. The vast sums pouring into politics today has corrupted our elections, and decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have made it impossible to protect the electoral system from the corruption of money. Vast sums contributed directly and indirectly to candidates, the unlimited spending of a candidate of his or her own wealth on his or her own candidacy, the use of ancillary organizations to direct funds indirectly to campaigns, and most ominously the unlimited spending in support of any candidate in any election by corporations and unions, taken together have distorted our system.
I was a member of Congress from 1969 to 1977. In 1972 we enacted legislation that created public financing of presidential elections, providing candidates for president and vice president with matching funds while limiting how much an individual could contribute to a candidate. Candidates who received matching funds were bound by those limitations.
In the City of New York, where I was mayor from 1978 to 1989, we enacted legislation in 1988 that was proposed by then corporation counsel Peter Zimroth. The legislation limited how much citywide candidates -- mayor, comptroller, president of the City Council (now Public Advocate), five borough presidents and all members of the City Council, and all candidates running for all of these positions in opposition, could spend, as well as how much an individual could contribute to a candidate.
Both the national and New York City's efforts at reasonable regulation to limit the impact of money have been rendered useless by U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Both systems, federal and municipal, required the candidate to submit to the federal and municipal limitations in order to become eligible for the matching funds. Neither the federal or municipal government could mandate a candidate participate in order to run for public office. However, most candidates at the municipal level wanting and needing the matching funds have voluntarily accepted the limitations.
Several decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court totally destroyed the federal and municipal efforts to effectively regulate and limit the amounts of money contributed and the amounts legally spent in the course of the election. The first case was Buckley v. Valeo (1976). Under that decision, candidates were lawfully permitted to spend their own monies on their own campaigns without limitation, provided they didn't voluntarily enter the matching fund system, giving a wealthy person an extraordinary advantage in any campaign. The U.S. Supreme Court equated spending money to speech and the spending of personal wealth for one's own candidacy was protected under the First Amendment.
An even more devastating decision of the U.S. Supreme court was rendered in a recent decision, Citizens United v. FEC (2010). That decision granted to corporations and unions the same free speech rights as individuals have giving corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited funds in support of a candidate for public office.
The president of the U.S. has said, as is his right, that he will raise and spend in the next election a billion dollars. His Republican adversaries will undoubtedly seek to raise and spend as much or more.
That is the background. Many good government agencies and individuals are appalled by the corrupting of our election process with these decisions, allowing unlimited funds to pour into general and primary elections, and giving an overwhelming advantage to special interest groups and corporate interests who can raise massive war chests and direct them to candidates who then become dependent upon, and subservient to, these special interests. Last week, a group of seven senators led by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a joint resolution to address the problems besetting efforts to limit the spending of money in federal, state and municipal elections. The other senators were Michael F. Bennet (D-CO), Tom Harkin (D-IO), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Jeff Merkley (D-OR)and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). In introducing the legislation, Udall said:
Over the past 10 years, the influence of corporations and special interests in political campaigns has exploded. Each time a regulation is put in place, special interests circumvent the rules through legal loopholes or use the courts to strike down the law. The problem isn't one particular law or judicial decision; it's the fact that Congress can no longer effectively regulate the flow of money into campaigns. The only sure fix is a constitutional amendment that gives Congress the authority to reform the campaign finance system.
We didn't get here over night. The Supreme Court has issued a series of bad decisions that have crowded and distorted our elections with a flood of corporate and special-interest money that can swing an election one way or the other. In 1976 the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for a broken system in the Buckley v. Valeo decision. In that case, the Court incorrectly decided that imposing modest restrictions on campaign expenditures violates the First Amendment right to free speech. This established the flawed precedent that money and speech are the same thing - something I strongly disagree with.
More recently the Supreme Court issued an even worse decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In this case, they granted the same free-speech rights to corporations and other special interests that the Constitution guarantees to individuals. With Buckley v. Valeo equating money to speech, and now Citizens United giving Free Speech rights to large corporations and interest groups, the political system is becoming evermore unbalanced.
While the average American only has one vote and limited resources to contribute to political candidates, these organizations can now pour vast sums of money into advertising that influences the outcome of our elections. As a result, in the elections of 2010, New Mexicans and all Americans saw a new breed of attack ads from out-of-state interests. The vast majority were negative. These new organizations raised and spent unlimited funds for the first time since before there was television. In the upcoming 2012 election, you can certainly count on even more.
This constitutional amendment would: Authorize Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns, including independent expenditures. Allow states to regulate such spending at their level. Not dictate any specific policies or regulations, but instead would allow Congress to pass campaign finance reform legislation that withstands constitutional challenges.
Prior to the senators introducing their bill, I decided to convene a meeting of likeminded citizens -- nationwide -- to support a constitutional amendment to rid the electoral system of the corrupting burden of unlimited contributions and spending. We now have the Udall constitutional amendment to rally around and support in the Congress and, if enacted, then in every state legislature. The amendment must be adopted in both Houses of Congress by a two-thirds vote and in the state legislatures with three-fourths of the states or ratifying conventions held in three-fourths of the states. Every state will need people to organize support for this amendment.
If you want to be a part of the effort to free our electoral process from the corrupting grip of big money, please let me know.