In the early ’60s, a colorful California House speaker and longtime Kennedy political disciple, “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh, came up with the big line that’s defined American democracy since the days of Andrew Jackson: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Yet that milk has been spoiled by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 5-4 opinion in the Citizens United vs. FEC case that now conspires against the very citizens it was meant to empower. In short, this opinion ensured that free speech isn’t free anymore by allowing corporations, unions and associations (and, by extension, individuals) to spend whatever they want influencing the outcome of elections.
More than ever, American democracy is for sale, bartered to the most powerful, leased to the most connected, sold to the most moneyed.
It’s almost like democracy has become a stock on the NYSE whose price, unlike any other listed company, despite good reports and bad, constantly goes up.
The national debt soars, but so does the price of democracy. Health care costs are unsustainable and someday unaffordable, yet this stock surges skyward. A threat from North Korea; a domestic terrorist incident in New York; a church shooting in Texas? Doesn’t matter.
What does is that while a few elite owners of this stock are cashing in big time, the majority of shareholders — that would be us — are losing value every day.
To save America, we need campaign finance reform that makes it clear that democracy is not for sale, government is not for sale, politicians are not for sale. If not, we shed any pretense of having a government of the people versus a system of the privileged and powerful.
We’ve been here before, and we should learn from our mistakes. In 1910, Congress passed the Federal Corrupt Practices Act to impose more transparency. It wasn’t enough. Nearly a century later, the McCain-Feingold bill sought to level the playing field, but mountains of big money found ingenious ways to protect their territory.
The problem today is not the amount of money spent. It’s that the process itself is owned and controlled by too few.
Last year, more than $6.5 billion was spent on all federal campaigns by candidates, parties and interest groups. That sounds like a lot of money, but it represents only half of the cost of a new aircraft carrier. Why would we have no problem spending $13 billion on one naval vessel to defend America, but wretch at spending half of that to defend democracy?
It’s even legitimate to argue that we don’t spend enough to preserve what we can’t get enough of: freedom. But when we buy democracy, we shouldn’t be surprised by what we get back.
Last year, then-U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican, sparked a national conversation about stopping members of Congress from spending as much as half of their time raising money for their respective re-elections — to “encourage” members to spend more time raising new ideas to fix our problems than raising campaign money to fix their own.
Called the Stop Act, Jolly’s legislation would have prohibited federal elected officials from personally asking for campaign contributions. It gained little traction, but its implications for improving the business of governing are more vital than ever.
Because when it comes to electing our best, the colors of choice should be red, white and blue, not green.
So, how do we save America from money-induced bias without eliminating the legitimate need for funding the healthy exchange of ideas?
Here’s my take. First, corporations and unions, who today have little accountability and unlimited funds, should have limits just like the rest of us. After all, the law now considers corporations and unions as people too.
Second, impose restrictions on super PACs that pack a disproportionate wallop over campaigns, sometimes outspending the candidates themselves by more than 4-1. You can bet the big betters will expect a hefty return on their investment.
Finally, whether it takes an act of Congress or an infusion of fresh blood on the nation’s highest court, do everything possible to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision so America can unite and move forward again.
As Britain’s Lord Acton once observed, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
What’s certain is that if we don’t reform our campaign finance system, we can be absolutely certain we will suffer the consequences.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.