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Empower the American People, Not Special Interests, to Bankroll Elections

By / 9.22.2010

Eight months after a landmark Supreme Court ruling lifted decades-long limits on corporate and union spending in elections, the 2010 midterm election promises to be the most expensive – and most secretive – on record.

In a radical departure from previous high court jurisprudence, the decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission extended full personhood freedom-of-speech rights to corporations , allowing them to spend unlimited funds to advocate the election or defeat of candidates at any level. It is little surprise, therefore, that analysts are predicting political ad spending to balloon to $4.2 billion this year, fully twice the level spent in 2008.

In the absence of FEC enforcement of longstanding disclosure norms and the failure of the DISCLOSE legislation to garner 60 votes in the Senate, millions of dollars in electioneering ads are being spent for or against candidates by unknown players who are unaccountable to either the candidates or the public. A recent study issued last week by the watchdog group Public Citizen found that less than one-third of independent groups receiving electioneering donations have revealed their donors this election; virtually every such group did so in 2004 and 2006. Small wonder that eight in ten voters roundly condemn the Supreme Court ruling in opinion polls.

With these sobering changes in special interest spending and disclosure comes an opportunity for Congress to shift the election year debate from issues – on which there is little hope of consensus between the parties – to process. The political imperative for such a change is clear, as liberals and Tea Partiers alike are outspoken in their rejection of the current system of corporate special interest-funded elections. While progressive support of campaign finance reform has long been assumed, Republican strategist Mark McKinnon recently observed, “There is a conventional myth that Republican voters are opposed to campaign finance reform, but [recent] research shows that Republican voters, like all other voters, believe our system of electing representatives is irreparably broken.”

It is encouraging news that the Committee on House Administration is planning to vote this Thursday on the Fair Elections Now Act. The bill offers a sweeping overhaul of congressional campaign finance rules. It would take require that participating candidates say no to special interest contributions and instead raise money in $100-or-less donations directly from their constituents. Qualifying House candidates who can collect at least 1,500 such donations in-state would be eligible to receive competitive matching funds with which to run a viable campaign. The legislation is supported by 164 cosponsors in the U.S. House and 26 cosponsors Senate.

For Democrats concerned with leveling the electoral playing field to allow more voices to enter the debate, the appeal of Fair Elections is clear. For Republicans opposed to old fashioned limits-based regulation of ‘free speech’ but who are equally fed up with the never-ending hunt for special interest dollars, Fair Elections represents a free market-oriented ‘more speech’ approach, enabling non-millionaire and non-special interest candidates to compete against those with big money. Recent surveys confirm broad public support for Fair Elections across every political group.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United came down, President Obama roundly condemned the decision  in his State of the Union address on the grounds that “American elections [should not] be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests.” Now is Congress’ opportunity to make good on their objection and to ensure that American elections are bankrolled by the American people.

Photo credit: Nick Ares