By Neil Heckman
Who funds our elections these days? If you go by the numbers, once again, it’s the 1 percent.
At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this past Tuesday titled, “Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs,” former governor of Louisiana and recent presidential candidate Charles “Buddy” Roemer made this very point during his testimony before the committee. According to the figures he provided, fewer than 1 percent of American citizens give 99 percent of total political campaign contributions made.
Those who’ve been experiencing the sweltering 100-degree days in Washington, D.C., this summer might attribute the heat to D.C.’s swampy nature, or even to climate change. But it’s entirely possible that it’s the unchecked campaign spending like this by corporations and the 1 percent that we’re seeing this election season that is making people’s temperatures rise, if not making their blood boil.
It’s a campaign that is ablaze with grassroots energy, as last Tuesday’s hearing demonstrated.
At the hearing, Public Citizen and its allies presented 1.98 million petition signatures calling for an amendment. The signatures were collected by a wide range of groups from people in every state. The movement for a constitutional amendment has built remarkable momentum, with the passage of resolutions calling for an amendment in 288 cities, towns and localities, and seven state legislatures. It has gained the support of at least 119 members of Congress.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) presided over the hearing and shared the following:
- After Citizens United, secret spending sky rocketed from 1 percent to 40 percent of political campaign spending.
- Half of all Super PAC money is coming from just 22 people.
- Super PACs have purchased “practically every last minute of available election time advertising.”
“They have a right to be heard,” he said of the Super PACs, “but they do not have the right to be the only ones heard.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) talked about wealth disparities and how the power of the rich influences politics in America. “Economically the United States today has by far the most unequal distribution of wealth income of any major country on earth,” he said, “and that inequality is worse today than it was any time since the late 1920s.” The Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, for example, controls more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people, he said.
His conclusion is that Citizens United tells billionaires that in addition to owning the economy, they now have the opportunity to “own” the government for a “very small percentage of their wealth.” “Why should we be surprised,” he asked, “when one family [the Koch Brothers] worth $50 billion is prepared to spend $400 million in this election to protect their interests? That is a small investment for them.” He closed by saying that the “future of American democracy is at stake,” and that is why he supports a constitutional amendment.
Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, caused a stir among the senators during his testimony when he suggested that the best way to deal with the corruption and monopolization of political speech in America is to shrink the government. “Shrink government and you’ll shrink the amount people are willing to spend trying to get their piece of the pie.”
Shapiro’s logic is circular at best: to deal with the corrupting influence of campaign money from the one percent, shrink the government? Doing so would reduce government’s ability to oversee potentially corrupt practices…such as campaign finance and campaign contributions. Nice how that works, right?
According to Shapiro, organizations such as Public Citizen really want “less speech” and “government” control over “who” speaks and how much.
Let’s be clear: Our goal is to protect political speech of living, breathing human beings – not corporations – and our rights to be heard and be the primary actors in our democracy. Limits on this type of election campaign spending are well-founded in this country’s jurisprudence and have only recently been swept into the dustbin by two reckless Supreme Court decisions that seem not only to have disregarded overwhelming evidence of dependency on wealthy funders that promotes corruption, but the America people as well.
We think democracy works best when all people’s voices count, and that letting the wealthy drown out these voices with billions in paid speech isn’t free speech at all – but speech that will cost us far too much.
That’s why we’re working toward a constitutional amendment to get corporate and wealthy individual money out of our elections and rein in corporate power. We are working to restore democracy. We are working to give the voice back to the people. And that movement is growing. Join us at Democracy Is For People and help us make sure that this first Senate hearing on a constitutional amendment to take back our democracy isn’t the last.
Neil Heckman, fellow for Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign. Sign the petition and join the fight to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (FEC) by visiting www.DemocracyIsForPeople.org, following @RuleByUs and liking the campaign on Facebook.