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Lisa Gilbert Headshot

In The Public Interest: Fast track the Citizens United Bill

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Not so long ago, "Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission" was just a pending obscure decision facing the Supreme Court.

But on January 21, with a cataclysmic ruling, what was once only on the minds of a few fretting campaign finance reformers made its way to America's front pages.

Polls from the left, right and center show that few approve of the justices' ruling. In fact, a shocking poll this week clocked eight out of ten Americans outright disagreeing.

If almost everyone agrees the decision is a problem, now its time to find a solution, and fast.

The 2010 election season is around the corner and the catastrophic Supreme Court decision means that floods of corporate treasury money can now be spent directly advocating for or against candidates.

Blunting the worst impacts of Citizens United in time to impact the 2010 races is essential for protecting American democracy. Even if the money spent is not as astronomical as projected, it will only take one or two races where industry giants like Exxon Mobil or Goldman Sachs bring their dollars to bear and successfully influence the outcome to forever change the ease with which politicians vote their conscience. Every officeholder in the land will be keenly aware that their race could be the next to have corporate might thrown against it.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland are in the midst of preparing legislation (PDF) that would do just that.

Among other things, the proposed law would:
  • Ban campaign expenditures by recipients of federal bailout money until the money is repaid, as well as by government contractors,
  • Ban expenditures by foreign-controlled corporations,
  • Require corporations to disclose the sources and amounts of money that they use within 24 hours on their web sites and as well as notify their shareholders on a quarterly basis, and,
  • Require that CEOs appear in broadcast ads paid for by their corporations, avowing that they endorse the advertisements, the same way candidates are required to endorse their own ads.

Imagine seeing a vicious attack ad and then the face of a CEO at the end, saying: "I am the CEO of Exxon Mobil, and my company paid for this ad." This could act as a deterrent for some companies and Boards of Directors from participating in the most egregious kinds of advertising; it could even stop them from getting involved in attack ads altogether.

A final important element which should also be a part of the Citizens United solution but is not yet, is a requirement that shareholders approve of political campaign expenditures by the corporation.

When corporations spend the money of their shareholders on campaigns, they should be promoting their shareholders' interests not merely expressing their own political views.

Although Democrats have begun this process of correcting the court's misstep, this bill clearly should receive bipartisan support.

The prospect of foreigners helping to elect our next Congress should be troubling to all ideological camps, and the transparency and disclosure provisions should strike a chord with anyone who cares about accountable and transparent government.

The Schumer-Van Hollen bill is expected to be introduced within a few weeks. Congress must fast track it so that it can forestall the worst impacts of this decision in time for this year's elections.

The bill will help keep special interest money in check to make space for real reforms that are in the public interest: for instance, the establishment of a system of small donor-focused public financing like the Fair Elections Now Act.

By blocking the Citizens United money flood by passing a strong solution and then backing Fair Elections, we can truly give candidates a means to opt out of our corporate money-laden system.