This Saturday, January 21st, is the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United that corporations are persons with the same rights as living natural persons and may legally donate unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates as long as their contributions flow through "independent" committees and don't go directly to the candidates.
Without reviewing any factual record, the 5-4 majority determined that contributions made to such "independent" committees, rather than directly to the candidate, could not, by definition, create a quid pro quo corruption in which, if elected, the candidate would be influenced to do the bidding of the corporate donor, and that even the appearance of influence over and access to elected officials "will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy."
No matter that such "independent" committees are often headed by the candidate's former campaign manager or chief of staff and funded with millions of dollars by their most loyal campaign donors. No matter that a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey found that that 86% of the public thinks elected officials in the nation's capital are mostly influenced by the pressure they receive from campaign contributors and that that 2/3 say elections are usually for sale to the candidate who can raise the most money, with less than one in three saying that elections are generally won by the best candidate.
As predicted by many at the time, Citizens United has led to the explosion of "independent" political committees and Super PACs. In the first election after Citizens United, outside groups spent over $280 million in 2010, compared to $120 million in the 2008 Congressional elections, and $54 million in 2006. As of the beginning of this week, with contests in only the two small states of Iowa and New Hampshire completed, Super PACs had already spent $33,100,503 in the 2012 cycle.
The Citizens United decision, along with the earlier Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo that money is equivalent to speech and it's unconstitutional to limit how much a candidate may spend to get elected, has generated an explosion of opposition against what many see as legal bribery and the auction of political office to the highest bidder in which the candidate who raises the most money wins 94% of the time.
At least 15 constitutional amendments declaring that corporations are not people (at least for the purposes of making electoral contributions) and/or that money isn't speech have been introduced in Congress. A number of old line good government groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen and People for the American Way, as well as a number of new groups like United Republic, Move to Amend, and Free Speech for People have initiated mass citizens' movements to get money out of politics. City councils in Los Angeles, New York and a number of smaller cities have passed resolutions supporting amending the Constitution and efforts are under way to pass similar resolutions in cities, towns and states throughout the country.
But even when this movement is led by non-partisan organizations like Common Cause and Public Citizen, they have been supported largely by people on the left of center and have received little support, or even been opposed by, conservatives.
On a strictly knee-jerk basis, this is understandable since those on the left are more naturally suspicious of corporations and big money than those on the right. But in reality, preserving American democracy, preventing political bribery and corruption, and insuring that every citizen has an equal voice in choosing their representatives should be a cause supported across the political spectrum from left, to center, to right.
Conservatives who want to reduce the size of government and cut the deficit have seen the size of government increase even under conservative Republican administrations like those of George W. Bush. This can be attributed in large part to the influence of special interest money in politics. If conservatives want to end earmarks, then they should be for limiting the ability of special interests who benefit from earmarks to buy Congressional representatives to support such earmarks. If they want to end bailouts of banks, they should consider supporting limitations on the ability of big banks to make unlimited "independent" campaign expenditures. If they oppose "Obamacare," they should be concerned about the ability of insurance companies and drug companies to use campaign contributions to cut deals guaranteeing their profits at taxpayer expense.
Moreover, after watching the barrage of negative advertising from Super PACs during the Republican primary season so far, conservatives should be concerned that such uncontrolled spending may so cripple their potential nominees that the eventual Republican Presidential nominee will be so weakened by the time of the general election that President Obama's reelection will be all but guaranteed.
Surprisingly, many of the biggest corporations who make large campaign contributions would rather not have to. They feel that they're in an arms race in which they must make large-scale investments in political campaigns because their competitors do to. But anonymous sources tell me that many CEOs would rather not spend so much of their corporate cash in this way. If the playing field could be leveled, there may be support from elements of the business community to limiting money in politics.
While I realize that many movement conservatives do not consider John McCain to be a "true conservative," he has been one of the few leading Republicans to denounce Citizens United, telling ABC News:
We had campaign contribution limitations for a reason and the United States Supreme Court basically did away with all that and we're going to pay a heavy price for that and I also guarantee that there will be scandals sooner or later.
Conservatives should consider that getting money out of politics and ending the corruption of legal bribery that guarantees the continuation of wasteful government spending paid for by campaign contributions may well be in their best interest.
Likewise, getting money out of politics should be a priority for "centrists" who would like to see a "grand bargain" in which the deficit is addressed by conservatives agreeing to tax increases and liberals agreeing to cutting spending, including on Medicare and Social Security. Big money campaign contributions to Republicans from the likes of hedge funds, banks, and wealthy individuals will constrain them from considering any tax increases. Big money campaign contributions to Democrats from unions and liberal interest groups will constrain them from considering substantial budget cuts. In short, unlimited campaign contributions guarantee continued legislative stalemate on large-scale structural reforms from the center, right, or left. As centrist New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, the biggest reason that America is only able to produce "suboptimal" solutions to its largest problems -- education, debt, financial regulation, health care, energy, and the environment -- is that
Money in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.
So on this second anniversary of the Citizens United decision, let's begin a dialogue between left, right and center on how to end the corruption of big money that is destroying American democracy. Let's create a system in which elections can produce an honest debate across the political spectrum of the best way to solve America's growing problems, based on who has the best ideas and not who has the most money.