By Bill Boyarsky
It took just 12 minutes and 29 seconds on the Senate floor for Sen. Bernie Sanders to expose the real power of corporate America over our elections. It should be a rallying cry for the embattled minority trying to clean up the system.
Sanders, one of two Independents in the Senate (along with Joe Lieberman), was speaking Dec. 8 on behalf of his proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating Citizens United decision, which permits corporations, unions and issue advocacy organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money from their own funds to support or oppose candidates.
As the nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog The Center for Responsive Politics said of Citizens United, it “has profoundly affected the nation’s political landscape” and resulted in “unprecedented political spending. Secret donors. New ways for unions and corporations to spend money on politics.”
With Barack Obama and the Republican presidential candidates collecting huge amounts of money and attention, Sanders focused instead on the Senate and the House, a real public service.
Noting that the six largest banks on Wall Street have assets equal to 65 percent of the national gross domestic product, he asked what happens in Congress “when an issue comes up and impacts Wall Street … to break up these huge banks and members walk up to the desk and have to decide [whether] to vote against it with full knowledge that if they vote against the interest of Wall Street that two weeks later there may be ads coming down into their state attacking them. Every member of the Senate, every member of the House, in the back of their minds, will be thinking … ‘If I cast a vote this way, if I take on the big money interest, am I going to be punished … will a huge amount of money be unleashed in my state?’ Every member knows this is true. It is not just taking on Wall Street, maybe it’s taking on the drug companies, maybe it’s taking on the private insurance companies, maybe it’s taking on the military-industrial complex. … You’re going to think twice about how you cast that vote.”
Sanders’ description is much more sophisticated than the conventional view of campaign reformers: contribution received, vote given. Perhaps there is no crime, but certainly the appearance of a quid pro quo. That’s bad and it happens all the time. But in the post Citizens United world, powerful special interests have a much greater ability to influence votes with the threat of massive electoral retaliation.
The retaliators are the many independent groups formed since the Supreme Court gave its blessing. They collect unlimited and undisclosed contributions and distribute them in unlimited amounts in the form of television and radio commercials, online propaganda, targeted get-out-the-vote drives, robo-phone calls, mailings, polling, fundraising and other political activities. The Center for Responsive Politics has documented a huge increase in contributions from these groups. Among them are American Crossroads, run by Republican and former adviser to President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and the conservative Club for Growth Action, as well as smaller union and liberal funds.
They are swords hanging over the head of any lawmaker. A vote against a powerful industry—or, for that matter, a powerful union—will bring swift punishment from a secretive source ready to flood a district or a state in the next election campaign. The threat of being blindsided is always there. The lobbyist doesn’t have to verbalize it or even give the threatening look, an old tool of that trade. The lawmaker can just look around and note the absence of former colleagues defeated by one of these assaults.
I know how difficult it is to get people outraged about this subject. I was a member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission for five years, charged with enforcing the city’s campaign finance laws. Journalists and the public pretty much ignored our efforts and the elected officials in City Hall stymied us.
That’s why my first reaction to Sanders’ proposal was skeptical. Then, by chance, I happened to catch much of his speech on C-SPAN. I tracked it down on YouTube and saw the whole thing. It was a bright moment in a dreary year.
Sanders is not alone in his fight. The activist organization Public Citizen and other progressive groups are organizing, circulating petitions for a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision. The target date, Jan. 21, will be the second anniversary of the high court’s ruling.
The Los Angeles City Council supports the constitutional amendment. Another supporter, progressive activist Mark Green, said Occupy Wall Street should join in. He wrote in The Huffington Post, “Nothing could enhance American democracy more than if Occupy Wall Street helped enact the 28th Constitutional Amendment to end the pretense that corporations are people who speak with money. The 99% can stop the privatization of government.”
On Thursday night, I attended a meeting of eight people who were planning a Jan. 21 march. The group, earnestly talking in the living room of Dr. Andrew Leavenworth, reflected the hope and frustration felt by progressives. Frustration with President Obama for not keeping his promises and with the money-dominated political system. Hope that their demonstration and others around the country will spark a reform movement. To attract attention in media-heavy L.A., they will march from a Bank of America branch to the nearby Federal Building, carrying a coffin containing Uncle Sam and a copy of the Constitution to show the harm done by the Citizens United decision.
Americans who want a cleaner politics should join in outrage with those working to scrub our political system. As Sanders said in his speech, “Make no mistake. The Citizens United ruling has radically changed the nature of our democracy, further tilting the balance of power toward the rich and the powerful at a time when already the wealthiest people in this country have never had it so good.”
AP / Rich Pedroncelli