After a raucous week of campaigning filled with vicious personal and political attacks, Republicans will go to the polls in South Carolina on Saturday. Saturday also marks the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The connection? This Republican primary is offering progressives the equivalent of a movie preview, but you don't want tickets to this show.
The voice over sounds something like this: "An incumbent President, who fights for working people, enters an election where his opponents believe corporations are people, and the rich are the only ones who are working hard. Corporate SuperPAC Studios is proud to mislead you and protect its wealthy donors from scrutiny this fall in: The Fight to Give More to Those Who Already Have the Most."
Social media may have been the hallmark of the 2008 campaign, but I fear 2012 will be the year of the SuperPAC. Instead of energizing the grassroots, SuperPACs get their fuel from anonymous wealthy donors. There are no limits on contributions or on the undue influence they can exert on elections.
Admittedly, we may not shed any tears as the SuperPACs proclaim Mitt Romney's delight at running companies into the ground and firing workers as a part of Bain Capital's corporate chop-shop, or Newt Gingrich's truly awful conservative heresy of sitting on a couch next to Minority Leader Pelosi to acknowledge the real danger posed by climate change. But we should care for two reasons. The first is that when this circular firing squad ends, the SuperPACs will start aiming at us. The second goes to the heart of our democracy: Unlimited SuperPAC spending violates the principle of one person, one vote. In other words, Citizens United has made restoring transparency and accountability to our electoral process a national emergency.
Many of us think of Watergate as the scandal that brought down a president, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Do we want to return to the era when deep-pockets dominated the playing field, anonymously intimidating candidates and drowning out their messages? When anyone with the money can run misleading negative ads without knowing who's behind them?
I believe government is a legitimate check on unbridled corporate power and a guarantor of democratic processes. We must recapture it as an instrument of our common purpose. There are two things we can do to get back on track.
First, and I don't say this lightly, we need to go to the source and amend the Constitution. I am cosponsoring the bill that seems the most straightforward, first championed by Senator Fritz Hollings and now by Representative Marcy Kaptur in the House. H.J.Res. 8 would amend our Constitution to allow for limitations on contributions to and expenditures by individuals, candidates and political committees taking part in federal elections.
Secondly, as the author of the "Stand By Your Ad" disclosure requirement, which forces candidates to appear in their ads and claim responsibility for their content, I believe we must extend this requirement to entities newly empowered by the Supreme Court's disastrous ruling. I've introduced "Stand By Every Ad," which would require third party groups to both claim responsibility for their ads and reveal their top five donors in the ads themselves. If candidates have to appear in their ads and claim responsibility, CEOs should too.
"Stand By Every Ad" isn't a cure-all, but it would place responsibility where it belongs. The best proof of its likely effectiveness is how virulently Senator McConnell opposed the bill after we passed it in the last Congress as a part of the DISCLOSE Act. Republicans know where their bread is buttered, and they slammed the door shut on disclosure.
Money is not speech, and corporations are not people. The true measure of our success is the well-being of each American, not the wealthy's stock market payouts or corporate profit margins. Let's do everything we can to make sure 2012 is the year of the voter, not the SuperPAC.
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