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Who and What Can Possibly Save American Democracy? 4 Key Questions

We’re deep in the hole with Citizens United and unlimited campaign spending. How should we try to resolve this problem?

When the final gavel fell on Tuesday ending the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on “taking back our democracy,” it was hard to tell if this exercise was striking political theater or actually the start of something bigger—the first steps toward reforming America’s dysfunctional campaign finance system.

A handful of mostly Democratic senators and left-leaning witnesses shared vivid war stories about the many ways big money in elections is destroying our democracy. They agreed that a terrible situation has been made even worse by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling further deregulating campaign finances. But they backed off discussing proposed solutions or suggesting a timetable for next steps.

While it was temporarily satisfying to hear senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Bernie Sanders, Max Baucus, Thomas Udall, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Coons, Amy Klochubar and Rep. Donna Edwards, and witnesses Buddy Roemer—an ex-congressman, governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate—and Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig describe exactly how big money and an illogical Supreme Court have undermined the founders’ vision of what a citizen-based democracy is supposed to be, they reluctantly—or perhaps deliberately—put off hard talk about solutions.

“You are faced with raising a million dollars a month to be competitive, under the old rules, before the arrival of super PACs,” said Illinois’ Sen. Durbin, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, speaking of his campaigns. “Most Americans, I think, would be maybe a little embarrassed, certainly surprised, about how much time that members of Congress spend talking about raising money, and actually raising money…

“Now, air drop in super PACS and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the closing days. So far, a couple of our colleagues have faced $10 and $12 million of super PAC negative advertising, unanswered, in their election campaigns. That’s the new world.” 

What can be done about that new world was Tuesday’s topic. Durbin’s panelists sat across from 1.7 million signed petitions calling for Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states to address the distorting effects of big money in elections and politics. He and other witnesses mentioned that six legislatures—California, Maryland, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island and New Mexico—and 275 local governments have demanded similar action. Four hundred people watched in total from the hearing room and an overflow room. New and old grassroots groups—Move to Amend, Free Speech For People, People for the American Way, Common Cause and others—demonstrated there is tremendous public support for sweeping political reform.

Three senators who have proposed different amendments—Sanders, Udall and Baucus—and  Edwards, who offered an amendment in the House, sketched out their ideas. Witnesses then added their thoughts. Some amendment proposals seek to strip corporations of political and constitutional rights. Some just want to empower Congress to regulate campaign donations and spending in elections--no matter who is doing it. A few blend those approaches. But not one of the Senate and House sponsors were asked to distinguish their proposals from others, or say where there was common ground.

The witnesses also spoke of laws Congress could pass—if the Supreme Court could be stopped from eviscerating its ability to regulate money in politics. They cited the need for full and timely disclosure of campaign donations and spending, banning contributions from lobbyists, making rules on PACs the same as on individuals, closing 2012’s new loopholes exploited by billionaires and corporations, and improving public financing options. And almost everyone agreed—except for the libertarian Cato Institute’s representative, who defended unlimited spending by wealthy people and interests (no Republican senators were present for the hearing)—that a line of Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1976 could only be reversed by a constitutional amendment.

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