Five years after the Supreme Court's disastrous 5-4 decision in Citizens United, there's a lot to be angry about.
With election spending out of control, and super PACs empowering giant corporations and billionaires like no time since the Gilded Age, Big Money is not just influencing who's elected to office in this country, but what elected officials do.
Consider how the new Congress has opened: A House of Representatives leadership effort to skirt normal procedure and rush through a repeal of key Dodd-Frank provisions to rein in Wall Street speculative activities. A House of Representatives vote to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. A House vote to handcuff consumer, health, safety, environmental and other regulatory agencies so that they cannot issue new rules to address corporate abuse and protect the American public. Another House vote to repeal the Dodd-Frank measure, after the initial rush effort failed to garner a needed two-thirds majority. Meanwhile, in the slower-moving Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has decided Keystone legislation will be the first significant matter taken up.
Why is this the starting agenda for Congress? Most Americans are unfamiliar with derivatives clearing requirements, but they surely know they don't want to enable more of the aggressive Wall Street gambling that threw our nation into recession. Americans don't want dirty air, unsafe food and water, dangerous workplaces or to be ripped off by unscrupulous businesses; and by overwhelming margins, they want our regulatory agencies strengthened, not weakened. And there's no serious case for the Keystone pipeline, given that it will do nothing for consumers, create only a few dozen permanent jobs, and significantly exacerbate the greenhouse gas emissions that are endangering the planet and humanity.
The Congressional agenda is the agenda of the billionaire class, plain and simple. The Koch brothers spent more money than we'll ever know on the last election. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was the largest "dark money" organization in the 2014 elections, at least in terms of spending required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission. The Chamber invested very heavily and successfully in the 2014 elections to elect corporate-minded candidates in the Republican primaries and in the general election. Now these and other giant donors are being rewarded with their return on investment.
When it comes to the outside spending facilitated by Citizens United, there's a lot we don't know about who's spending money on elections. Groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity primarily spent money in ways that aren't reported at all. And almost a third of reported spending was done by organizations that don't reveal their donors.
But even with what we know, it's staggering how few donors are wielding such a gigantic influence over our politics, and our country:
• Across all federal elections since Citizens United was decided in 2010, there has been more than $1 billion in super PAC spending, reports the Brennan Center. Just 195 individuals and their spouses gave almost 60 percent of that money -- more than $600 million.
• Forget about the top 1 percent. The top .01 percent of income earners are responsible for more than 40 percent of campaign contributions.
• In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that the previously existing cap on aggregate contributions by individuals was unconstitutional, raising the amount an individual can give to candidates, parties and political committees from $123,000 to $5.9 million. Only 1,200 people had even approached the previously existing cap.
Five years after the Supreme Court handed down the abomination known as Citizens United, we know this: Our country will not be able to address the great challenges it faces - from putting people to work and raising wages to providing healthcare to all, from reducing wealth inequality to averting catastrophic climate change, and much more - without ending corporate and super-rich dominance of our elections.
As a whole, the billionaire class has views that are profoundly out of step with everyday Americans. And that goes a long way to explain the agenda of the new Congress.
It also explains in significant part why we aren't making progress on measures that have overwhelming popular support. The vast majority of Americans want to raise the minimum wage. They want policies to advance income and wealth equality. By a more than two-to-one margin, Americans oppose more NAFTA-style trade agreements. By a similar margin, they want to break up the giant banks, and they want Wall Street criminals put behind bars. Americans want investment in our schools, on sustainable transportation and infrastructure. They want policies to prevent catastrophic climate change. They want to protect--and improve--Social Security and Medicare.
But there's reason for hope, as well. The decision ignited a democracy movement. More than 1 million people have called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue a rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending. There are growing local and state efforts to win public financing of elections, and strong support for a federal bill as well.
And a grassroots firestorm is calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related decisions, and to restore our democracy. The same day that the Supreme Court handed down its McCutcheon decision, demonstrators in more than 150 cities and towns took to the streets to demand an amendment. Sixteen states and nearly 600 cities and towns have passed resolutions calling for an amendment. And, last September, in a historic moment on the path to winning an amendment, 54 U.S. Senators voted for an amendment.
Our country cannot tolerate domination by the Koch brothers, the Sheldon Adelsons, the U.S. Chambers of Commerce and their friends, and we will not. Five years after Citizens United, our democracy is weaker, but our democracy movement is stronger, than anyone could have predicted.
The road ahead is clear: Amending the constitution is hard by design, but it's something that We the People have done time and again to strengthen our democracy. We must do it again.