Sen. Tom Udall: "Americans’ right to speech is now determined by their net worth.”
By: Kurt Walters
On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing called “Taking Back Our Democracy” that looked at ways to respond to the stranglehold that special interests hold over our political process, especially after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The two panels of witnesses, speaking before about 400 people that packed the hearing room and an overflow room, included one a group of members of Congress who have introduced constitutional amendments to address Citizens United and the other was a group of three experts on campaign finance law.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) perhaps summed up the problem best when he recounted how the “history of our country has been a drive to a more and more inclusive democracy,” through measures like the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments, which brought more groups into the democratic process.
Through Citizens United and related cases, the Supreme Court has upended this course of history by giving more power to those with extreme amounts of wealth and shutting out the common person.
Here are a few comments from the elected officials at the hearing:
- Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the subcommittee chair: “[Super PACs] have a right to be heard, however they don’t have a right to be the only ones heard.”
- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): “The voices of the voters are lost amongst the super PACs.”
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “Not content to own our economy, the 1% wants to own our government as well.”
- Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.): “Americans’ right to speech is now determined by their net worth.”
- Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.): “‘One person, one vote’ seems more appropriate for a history lesson than a description of our current political process.”
Both Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination on an anti-corruption platform emphasized that politics today has two elections: the normal voting election and the separate “money election” that determines who can get to that stage.
Both reformers emphasized the need to end the status quo where the funders deciding the money race are totally different from “We the People,” which determines the voting election. A great way to do that? Fair Elections.
Prof. Larry Lessig: “Unlike the voting election, not every citizen can compete equally in the money election.” That’s why he proposes that “small donor-funded elections” like those proposed in the Fair Elections Now Act are a “critical second leg” in the three-legged solution money in politics will require: disclosure, public financing, and an amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s irresponsible jurisprudence.
Gov. Buddy Roemer: “Washington, D.C. appears to be broken … broken, yes, but it’s bought first and it will not be repaired by those who profit from its impairment.” It’s no coincidence that those benefitting from a broken Washington are cutting the checks to keep it that way.
Finally, Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute showed the true colors of the anti-reform side when he suggested that every politician should just find his or her own billionaire sugar daddy and then fundraising would be much easier. Nevermind that then billionaires would have a virtual veto power over which candidates have a chance of being elected.
During one exchange, Shapiro said: “There are plenty on both sides, billionaires.”
To which Sen. Durbin responded, “Is that our goal? To find the richest people in America and cozy up to them to finance our campaigns? That makes us a better democracy?”
To take back our democracy, we need to stop giving veto power over elections to the "sugar daddy class." Instead, as we wrote in our submitted testimony yesterday, we can amplify the voices of average people through a small donor matching fund system like the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation that would allow candidates for Congress to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on a blend of small dollar fundraising and matching public funds. Only then can we put citizens back in their rightful place as owners of the political process, so that government is truly run of, for, and by the people.