The recent Supreme Court Citizens United campaign finance decision is a dramatic assault on American democracy, giving corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. It tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself. Long-term, as The Nation has editorialized, we need to work strategically for a constitutional amendment stating unequivocally that corporations are not people and do not have the right to buy elections.
But in the short term, what’s needed to build a more just democracy is passage of the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation which I have long supported (see here and here). The bill has 134 backers in the House and nine in the Senate (including majority whip Dick Durbin). It would bar Congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public funds. By matching small donations with public funds, the law would put political clout in the hands of ordinary people.
Aside from being absolutely the right thing to do in the wake of the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic decision, it is a politically smart and timely move for legislators to push this bill. A recent Greenberg/Mark McKinnon poll found that voters support the Fair Elections Now Act by a two-to-one margin, 62 to 31 percent. Independents are even more enthusiastic about the bill, supporting the bill by 67 to 30 percent. The legislation is also supported by about 60 of the largest donors to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the donors warn that the increase in corporate campaign money "will add to the already intolerable pressure on members of Congress to raise campaign funds, a consuming distraction for those who are tasked with leading our nation during difficult times such as these."
Republican president Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he told Congress, "All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law." More than 100 years later we can take a desperately needed step to at least protect the public interest with this proposed legislation. If we don’t act now, we might as well soon include the tag "brought to you by (insert corporate sponsor here)" with every election and slate of candidates.