Citizens United, corporate spending and U.S. elections: Counteracting the super PACs
The "Nastiest Show on Earth" otherwise known as the "Slimary Process" -- the prolonged and agonizing Republican primary to select a presidential candidate -- is already being called the dirtiest of all time by political pundits and voters alike.
News this week that Mitt Romney is running more than $1 million worth of attack ads in Georgia in the lead up to Super Tuesday on March 6, signals that the circus has officially come to Atlanta.
While Georgians might be spared from the worst of the relentless toxic advertising that plagued South Carolina and Florida, expect moderate to heavy mudslinging on your TV sets in the coming weeks as the Republican candidates duke it out for a portion of Georgia's 76 delegates.
Pointing out differences with their opponents in policy, electability and experience has been replaced with going straight for the jugular, by calling each other vultures, shills, liars, socialists or un-American.
Helping to spawn these radioactive ads is the creation of super PACs, the political action committees that are reshaping American politics by giving the wealthy and corporations a larger say in the outcome of elections.
Two years ago this activist Supreme Court, misusing its authority by legislating policy from the bench, ignored decades of legal precedent when it ruled 5-4 in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that corporations have the same constitutional right of free speech as people.
The idea that corporations have the same First Amendment protections of free speech as people is troubling. Corporations are not people. They don't attend our schools, get married and have children. They don't vote in our elections.
But when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations have the same free speech rights, it opened the floodgates to unrestricted special interest campaign spending in American elections -- permitting corporations to spend unlimited funds, directly or through third parties and Political Action Committees organized for those purposes, to influence Federal elections and opened the door for the emergence of super PACs.
And this is not a partisan issue. Just listen to Republican political strategist Rick Tyler, who runs "Winning Our Future," the super PAC that has fueled Newt Gingrich's primary run: "They (super PACs) are terrible," he told the Tampa Bay Times last month. "I'm hopeful we've learned enough from this wretched experiment to fix it," Tyler said.
I agree. That's why I support a couple of measures.
I fully support the OCCUPIED Amendment: Outlawing Corporate Campaign Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy, which would overturn Citizens United, return campaign finance regulation to the government and limit corporation campaign spending.
But it would take two-thirds of members of both Houses of Congress to approve, and would have to be ratified by voters in two-thirds of the states before becoming law. This could take a decade or longer.
In the meantime Congress should pass the DISCLOSE Act, Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections, which requires disclosure of the source of the money that is being spent to influence the outcome of our elections.
The DISCLOSE Act passed the House in 2010, but Republicans in the Senate blocked it, and we are already seeing the impact. In the last two years, super PACs raised more than $180 million -- with roughly half of it coming from fewer than 200 super-rich people and roughly 20 percent from corporations. Of the $60 million collected so far by super PACs supporting presidential candidates, more than half -- or $33 million -- came from just 24 wealthy Americans, according to an Associated Press review of financial reports filed by the campaigns.
We need to restore accountability in our elections. The American people have a right to know the source of the money that is being spent. They should be told who is behind the millions of dollars in campaign ads and they should receive this information before they vote.
Billionaires like the Koch brothers, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and political puppet master Karl Rove should not be able to buy our elections. Secret money should not be able to drown out the voices of the American people and sell our Democracy to the highest bidder.
Follow Rep. Hank Johnson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RepHankJohnson