The movement to get money out of politics and to end the system of legal bribery we call elections is rapidly growing.
In a symbolic, but significant boost to the movement, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted on Tuesday night to make LA the first major city to endorse a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions that corporations are people and money is speech and therefore no limits may be placed on the amounts candidates to political office may spend or that corporations may donate to support or oppose candidates. It is these Supreme Court decisions that, as MSNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan has pointed out, have transformed our elections into auctions in which 94% of the time, the candidate who raises the most money wins.
The LA City Council vote has no direct legal impact -- amending the Constitution requires a vote of 2/3 of the House and Senate and 3/4 of the state legislatures (or alternatively, a Supreme Court majority that takes a different constitutional view than the Roberts court on the impact of money in politics on American democracy). But it adds impetus to the growing movement to end the auction of our government to the highest bidder and restore a democracy in which all citizens have an equal voice in who gets elected to office. And remember, some city council members may be future congresspeople, senators, or state legislators who will get to vote on a constitutional amendment.
Whether you're on the left, right or center, this is the most important issue of our times. As centrist New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, the biggest reason that America is only able to produce "suboptimal" solutions to its biggest 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."
In other words, whatever else you care about -- economic inequality or global climate change if you tilt left; a grand bargain on taxes and entitlements if you tilt towards the center; or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, bailouts and earmarks if you tilt right -- the American political system is incapable of enacting optimal solutions to big problems so long as most politicians of both political parties are bought by wealthy special interests with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.
To take one example, according to a representative of United Republic, a new campaign finance reform organization, the environmental movement raises nearly $1 billion a year in contributions -- the budget of the National Resource Defense Council alone is approximately $100 million dollars a year. Yet the environmental movement has few legislative accomplishments in recent years, even under the supposedly more environmentally friendly Obama administration and Democratic Congress. Climate change legislation is bottled up in Congress going nowhere, President Obama has next to nothing to say about it, and without US participation, international efforts to slow climate change are at a virtual standstill. Meanwhile, the energy industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year in political contributions and lobbying to block environmental regulation and promote climate change skepticism. Unless the environmental movement can match the energy industry in the campaign contribution auction, it's likely to continue to mostly fail. Therefore, if it wants to bring meaningful change, it should devote a significant part of its resources to getting money out of politics so the energy industry can't continue to buy politicians to block environmental protech.
The same goes for other movements from all parts of the political spectrum that want see the American system address the problems they care about. If you're billionaire Pete Peterson and want to see a grand bargain to cut entitlements and raise taxes, spend part of your billions on getting money out of politics. If you're Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, make a big part of your focus getting money out of politics. If you're a conservative who wants to end Federal support for Fannie and Freddie, join the movement to get money out of politics.
It looks like people are finally catching on that getting money out of politics is the key to most else. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Organization poll found that two-thirds of Americans 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.
More and more groups are rallying to the cause. I'm on a lot of email lists and in the past couple of weeks have received blasts from a number of groups working to get money out of politics including People for the American Way, Move to Amend, Free Speech for People, and Public Citizen. One group is calling for an occupation of the Courts on January 20th to commemorate the second anniversary of the Citizen's United decision that corporations are people. At least 7 proposed Constitutional Amendments reversing corporate personhood, the equivalency of money and speech, or both have been introduced in Congress in the past 6 months.
All this growing activity is encouraging. But a multiplicity of competing campaign finance reform organizations, each with its own agenda, and a multiplicity of proposed Constitutional Amendments, is unlikely to achieve the difficult goal of amending the Constitution and enacting a 28th Amendment to get money out of politics and restore political power to the voters instead of the special interests. It is essential that over the coming months, these and other groups begin a dialogue that will result in a unified circle in which they all work together for a common goal. And that dialogue must include a serious discussion of the language of a single 28th Amendment to the Constitution that this growing movement can rally around. Otherwise, all these efforts are likely to cancel each other out.
In the meantime, Tuesday's resolution by the Los Angeles City Council supporting an end to the political auction -- which will hopefully be followed by actions in cities and towns across America -- is one important step in the long march to restore democracy to America and address the nation's pressing problems.