We all know the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission already has and will continue to have a dramatic effect on our elections. Even if we don’t follow politics but live in any swing state, we know the effect well: more political ads, more vitriol, more mud and negativity, less disclosure, accountability, and honesty. Citizens United tells us that corporations are people and money is speech.
No one is immune. Unless we pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, our electoral system will become wholly corrupted. No elected official at any level is safe. For now, many of these shadowy so-called super PACs focus on federal elections primarily in swing states. But it won’t be long before they target locals as well. For instance, let’s say the oil, gas, or mining industry wants to drill but the local city or county officials pass zoning rules restricting where industrial activities occur. Nothing prevents the industry from forming a super PAC, filling its coffers with millions of dollars, and burying a political opponent in negative advertising. It doesn’t cost that much money to run a campaign for local office- very little compared to the enormous amounts industry routinely spends.
To be sure, amending the U.S. Constitution is not easy. Indeed, we’ve only done it twenty-seven times in the history of our nation. And remember, the first ten all passed in the same year and probably should have been included in the original document. Then there were the two that prohibited alcohol and then legalized it again. But that’s how the Founders intended it. Changing the Constitution is not supposed to be easy.
There is hope. A grassroots movement is afoot with the aim of passing a constitutional amendment designed to restore rule to the people. Local resolutions in cities and towns across America call for an end to unlimited corporate money in our elections. Legislators in state capitols everywhere continue to debate similar proposals. And environmental groups are getting in on the action. I sit on the board of one environmental organization’s endorsement committee. One of the questions on the candidate questionnaire called for an end to Citizens United. Our friends at Public Citizen have created a fact sheet describing the corrupting influence of dirty oil and gas industry money polluting our politics. Oil Change International closely tracks the links between campaign contributions and dirty energy votes.
A number of members of Congress have lent support to legislative reforms like the DISCLOSE Act, sponsored by Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen. Pursuing solutions like this has the dual benefit of improving the existing policy while simultaneously raising the profile of the larger constitutional debate. Ultimately, what this movement needs is a string of losing incumbents targeted by outside interests. When elected officials realize that a single Sheldon Adelson or George Soros contribution jeopardizes their own political career, we’ll see, once again, policy makers scrambling to catch up to the people.