May 1, 2014
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was exactly on target when he testified about the destructive effect of big money on our democracy and called for changes that will restrict the influence of big money and secret spending in our elections and our politics. "While money is used to finance speech, money is not speech. Speech is only one of the activities that are financed by campaign contributions and expenditures. Those financial activities should not receive the same constitutional protection as speech itself. After all, campaign funds were used to finance the Watergate burglaries – actions that clearly were not protected by the First Amendment," Stevens said.
The retired justice has it right.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court turned election and political spending upside down in its January 2010 Citizens United decision. With the Court's determination that "corporations are people too," with free speech rights and other individual liberties, it eliminated the campaign spending restrictions that were put in place to stop corporations and other groups from exerting undue influence and spending millions of dollars in the electoral process. Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion in Citizens United. The Court's decision in McCutcheon v. FEC this April went even farther, striking down aggregate contribution limits and permitting one super-wealthy donor to inject up to $3.6 million into our politics.
The impact of all this money is a growing conviction by Americans that their votes don't count, that our political process is controlled by the biggest bankroll, and that money, not the public interest, sets policies and priorities in government. All this big money gives a big voice to the wealthy and corporations, at the expense of the rest of us. It threatens the democratic voice that is the foundation of our country. Our representatives must spend too much time raising money. For some legislators, that leaves little time and less interest in developing the policies and programs that working families need. Like Justice Stevens, CWA believes that lawmakers would do a better job if they didn't have to spend so much time raising money.
Sen. Richard Durbin's (D-Ill.) "Fair Elections Now" Act and the "Government By the People" Act, introduced by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), are good first steps to reducing the influence of big donors over federal elections, enhancing the voice of small donors and helping to develop an effective, voluntary campaign finance system. The Senate also will vote on an amendment by Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) to overturn the Supreme Court's decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon.