Our Democracy No Longer Works and the Problem Is Congress
Continued from previous page
Before the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC , I thought these changes alone would be enough at least to get reform started. But the clear signal of the Roberts Court is that any reform designed to muck about with whatever wealth wants is constitutionally suspect. And while it would take an enormous leap to rewrite constitutional law to make the Fair Elections Now Act unconstitutional, Citizens United demonstrates that the Court is in a jumping mood. And more ominously, the market for influence that that decision will produce may well overwhelm any positive effect that Fair Elections produces.
This fact has led some, including now me, to believe that reform needs people who can walk and chew gum at the same time. Without doubt, we need to push the Fair Elections Now Act. But we also need to begin the process to change the Constitution to assure that reform can survive the Roberts Court. That constitutional change should focus on the core underlying problem: institutional independence. The economy of influence that grips Washington has destroyed Congress's independence. Congress needs the power to restore it, by both funding elections to secure independence and protecting the context within which elections occur so that the public sees that integrity.
No amendment would come from this Congress, of course. But the framers left open a path to amendment that doesn't require the approval of Congress--a convention, which must be convened if two-thirds of the states apply for it. Interestingly (politically) those applications need not agree on the purpose of the convention. Some might see the overturning of Citizens United . Others might want a balanced budget amendment. The only requirement is that two-thirds apply, and then begins the drama of an unscripted national convention to debate questions of fundamental law.
Many fear a convention, worrying that our democracy can't process constitutional innovation well. I don't share that fear, but in any case, any proposed amendment still needs thirty-eight states to ratify it. There are easily twelve solid blue states in America and twelve solid red states. No one should fear that change would be too easy.
No doubt constitutional amendments are politically impossible--just as wresting a republic from the grip of a monarchy, or abolishing slavery or segregation, or electing Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama was "politically impossible." But conventional minds are always wrong about pivot moments in a nation's history. Obama promised this was such a moment. The past year may prove that he let it slip from his hand.
For this, democracy pivots. It will either spin to restore integrity or it will spin further out of control. Whether it will is no longer a choice. Our only choice is how.
Imagine an alcoholic. He may be losing his family, his job and his liver. These are all serious problems. Indeed, they are among the worst problems anyone could face. But what we all understand about the dependency of alcoholism is that however awful these problems, the alcoholic cannot begin to solve them until he solves his first problem--alcoholism.
So too is it with our democracy. Whether on the left or the right, there is an endless list of critical problems that each side believes important. The Reagan right wants less government and a simpler tax system. The progressive left wants better healthcare and a stop to global warming. Each side views these issues as critical, either to the nation (the right) or to the globe (the left). But what both sides must come to see is that the reform of neither is possible until we solve our first problem first--the dependency of the Fundraising Congress.