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Stuart Whatley Headshot

Obama's State of the Union Falls Short on Correcting Citizens United

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President Obama's first State of the Union address, while predictable and straightforward towards most of the top issues of his first year, seemed rather soggy when it came to his push for a solution to the Citizens United decision handed down last week. He again criticized it, but then gave but one oblique line on how to fix it: "And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems." Of all issues, surely this deserved a more forceful call to action and stronger leadership overall.

The Court's 5-4 decision overturned a century-old precedent and grants corporations near pecuniary carte blanche to participate in American elections. The decision, hailing from the Court's "conservative" wing, has rightly been maligned, including by Obama, as a dishonest power grab and a devastating blow -- at least symbolically -- to the American electoral process. Congress may be able to "correct some of these problems", but members will need a push from their constituents. It's time to look to Citizens United's silver lining. Never before has the need for replacing the current campaign finance regime with a publicly funded one on all levels been so obvious.

While the Court had a number of tamer options at its disposal, it chose to go all out, and in so doing, has finally pushed a long-teetering system over the edge of absurdity. If the legislative efforts in Washington last year reveal anything, it's that politics and policymaking are corrupted overwhelmingly by perverse electoral incentives. Addressing this directly on a larger scale should now no longer be a question of if, but when -- and the sooner the better. In reality, it is a necessary prerequisite for everything else. Fortunately, there's word that some bills are already being mulled over and formulated in Congress. Let's hope they're bold enough.

With the burden of fund-raising gone, incumbents whose salaries are paid by taxpayers would be able to spend their time actually governing and legislating, rather than attending $500 luncheons. Campaigns would involve actually speaking to voters about the issues, rather than wooing big donors in backroom deals. The experiments in some states and cities with publicly funded campaigns, such as the Clean Elections movement, have been highly successful. It's now time for that movement to go viral.

The American campaign finance regime has long been predicated on the idea that contributions (and for that matter, lobbying money) fall under the First Amendment right to free speech; an equation that conveniently hands a megaphone to a select, wealthy few while muzzling most everyone else. Supporters of the Citizens United decision tout the de jure protection from censorship granted to corporations, but they ignore what is already a de facto muting of much of the American electorate who cannot afford to buy influence, be it with his or her own money or with profits belonging to oblivious shareholders.

From the procedural abuse of the filibuster to the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street, almost every lamentation of America's government that one hears today has roots in how public officials are elected. In our two-party system, the parties no longer reflect a coherent underlying liberal or conservative ideology; rather, each is mostly an arbitrary cobbling together of pet special interest groups. And all the while, those with the money to spend play both sides for fools -- evidenced by the record-breaking lobbying flurry we saw in 2009.

As we often hear with regards to health insurance, Social Security, and exorbitant adventures abroad, the long held trajectory of the American campaign finance system is unsustainable. As long as money maintains its monopoly on political influence, corporations will increasingly garner more power, and policies will represent the interests of families and individuals less and less. And on top of it all, the court's ruling further empowers special interest lobbyists, who can now credibly threaten campaign opposition to incumbents facing re-election if they don't vote in the preferred manner.

Doris Haddock, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate, recently outlined a few good options available to begin fixing the system, some of which are already operative in a few states and cities to at least some degree. One partial solution grants candidates free advertising time if they forgo "special-interest donations". And other "clean election" forms similar to this are already in place in states like Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. Of course, one downside of this solution is that it batches together all "special interests" from Tobacco Free Kids to Big Oil. Ultimately though, this is probably for the best. One of the most egregious flaws in the Citizens United decision is that it presumes equal influence-purchasing power between unions or NGOs and the likes of Goldman Sachs.

Another partial solution is for city, state and even the federal government to codify a stricter definition of what constitutes a "conflict of interest" for an elected official. This is certainly needed. Whether they intend it or not, it is almost impossible for elected officials to operate completely divorced from the fact that certain corporations or wealthy individuals have lavished them with campaign funds. Of course, this solution too could be problematic. How can we expect elected officials to voluntarily subject themselves to greater scrutiny of impropriety under law? One is reminded of the standoff between Dave and HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The answer is to take a bottom-up approach. In 26 states, for example, a ballot initiative could be used to institute publicly financed elections statewide, thus possibly redefining the national standard for a political trickle-up effect.

Voters must be convinced of the fact that the current situation benefits neither party and only represents the interests of American families increasingly less over time. Incumbents who do not support an overhaul should be voted out, regardless of party affiliation. This is an easy sell -- the benefit of having politicians who act in good faith for the middle class far outweighs the relatively small cost to taxpayers to fund publicly financed campaigns. The Supreme Court's deplorable ruling could be lamented and accepted. Or, more rightly, it could be rocket fuel on the fire of electoral reform efforts. Obama did not use it as such in his State of the Union. But it's not too late for a national reform movement.

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