We the People

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Editor’s Note: This article is from 2012, but it is just as relevant today.

If you are concerned about the collapse of the middle class, you should be concerned about how American campaigns are financed. If you wonder why the United States is the only country in the industrialized world not to have a national health care program, if you’re asking why we pay the highest price in the world for prescription drugs, or why we spend more money on the military than the rest of the world combined, you are talking about campaign finance. You are talking about the unbelievable power that big-money interests have over every legislative decision.

An already horrendous situation was made much worse two years ago this month when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission that multinational corporations have a constitutional right to spend whatever they want to influence election outcomes. A bare 5-4 majority lowered the floodgates on unchecked, unlimited, unaccountable corporate cash in political campaigns. Corporations were equated with people. A century of laws regulating business spending on elections were upended. In one fell swoop, five justices fantasized for corporations a right never conceived by the founders whose preamble to our Constitution begins with the words, “We the people…”

The ruling not only poisoned our political process. It contaminated the legislative process. It cast a permanent chill over all policymaking. Will the merits or the money tip the balance when an issue comes before Congress? What do you think? If the question is on breaking up huge banks, for example, every member of the Senate and the House, in the back of their minds, will ask themselves what the personal price would be for taking on Wall Street. Am I going to be punished? Will a huge amount of money be unleashed in my state? They’re going to think twice about how to cast that vote. Not to put too fine a point on it, you will see politicians being adopted by corporations and becoming wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate entities.

We already have seen what kind of damage Citizens United can cause. In the first election after the decision was handed down, corporations in 2010 poured hundreds of millions of dollars into independent organizations not formally affiliated with parties or candidates. About half of the $300 million spent by independent organizations came from undisclosed sources. In 60 of the 75 congressional races in which power changed hands, the unaccountable outside groups backed the winners. They spent freely and overwhelmingly on negative ads. The early phases of this year’s elections bear witness to projections that the Citizens United effect will be much worse. Karl Rove has announced plans to raise $240 million. The Koch brothers promise to spend $200 million. It’s fair to assume the Chamber of Commerce will spend at least as much. The Super PAC supporting President Obama, Priorities USA Action, aims to play in the same league. Hundreds of millions more will be in play.

It’s a virtual certainty that all of this spending will fundamentally distort our democracy, tilting the playing field to favor corporate interests, discouraging new candidates, chilling elected officials and shifting the overall policymaking debate even further in the direction of giant corporate interests and the super-wealthy.

So now we face a choice. Americans can let Citizens United remain the law of the land, or we can have a functioning democracy. We can’t have both. We choose democracy. With no reason to think that this court will reconsider its decision, we need a constitutional amendment.

Yes, legislative reforms could mitigate the damage. We should require better disclosure rules. We should make shareholders approve corporations’ political spending. We should provide public financing of elections, but entrenched money interests have thwarted that for decades.

But nothing can truly cure the problem unless Citizens United is overturned with a constitutional amendment.

The Saving American Democracy Amendment in the Senate and a companion proposed in the House by Florida Representative Ted Deutch would do just that. The amendment would establish that constitutional rights belong to real people, not for-profit corporations. The amendment would prohibit corporations from making election-related expenditures. It would clarify that Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign spending, overturning the doctrine that election contributions and expenditures constitute First Amendment-protected speech and therefore may be subject only to limited restrictions. And it would affirm that nothing in the amendment limits freedom of press.

It’s no easy thing to enact a constitutional amendment, but momentum for an amendment is building. People who have honest differences of opinion understand that there is something profoundly disgusting with what is happening in Washington and that there is something wrong with American democracy when you have a handful of billionaires and businesses putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process. Very few people think that has anything to do with American democracy. The American people desperately want to restore our democracy and return to rule by all of the people, not corporations and the superrich.

Bernie Sanders is a United States Senator from Vermont.

Sign the petition to support Sen. Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment.

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