Symposium | Everyone's Fight: The New Plan to Defeat Big Money

Building a Permanent Majority for Reform

By Russ Feingold

Tagged Campaign Finance

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s lawless decision in Citizens United, it’s clear that corruption is alive and well in our political system. Super PACs, 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporations, and trade associations such as the Chamber of Commerce funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the election this past year, often using the same former staffers and ad companies that official campaigns have used.

This system is unsustainable and grossly unpopular. While I’m confident that a Supreme Court with new justices appointed by President Obama will recognize the corruption that exists—just as a different Court did when it upheld the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill—we cannot wait until then. Americans need to continue the hard work of rolling back the new era of corporate dominance that Citizens United has ushered in, and we cannot do that without building a permanent pro-reform majority.

The last time our government was as saturated by corporate funds, under the system of “soft money” in the 1990s, the results were a disaster. Congress passed and the President—a Democrat—signed bill after bill that reflected a wish list of corporate America: telecom deregulation, NAFTA, and, most malignantly, Wall Street deregulation. The cause and effect were clear: The corporate money funding elections bought the enactment of new corporate deregulation.

We cannot let this happen again.

Overturning Citizens United is only one step. In order for Democrats to prevent another era of corporate-dominated policy-making, and to regain credibility as the party that stands up to the overwhelming corporate influence in Washington, Democratic elected officials, advocacy groups, and high-dollar donors must walk away from the corrupting money and organizations spawned from the Citizens United decision. Until they do, Democrats will not be taken seriously as the party of reform.

The Democrats’ Paradox

Despite President Obama’s victory, this past election was a big step back for Democratic efforts to build a mandate for reform.

When Priorities USA Action—the Democratic super PAC formed to support the President’s reelection—first launched, it landed with a thud. Fundraising was anemic, in part because some Democratic donors were rightfully skeptical of the shaky moral foundation of the effort, especially since President Obama in his State of the Union had firmly denounced Citizens United, the very Supreme Court ruling that allowed for the super PAC’s creation.

Still, its founders pressed ahead. Even though the Obama campaign at the time had yet to formally embrace Priorities USA, Washington reform groups offered only tepid criticism, and one prominent progressive activist disdainfully criticized opponents of the super PAC as “out of touch.”

In February 2012, one day after the Obama campaign reversed course and endorsed Priorities USA, Obama adviser David Axelrod went on “PBS NewsHour” to defend the decision. “The President believes deeply that these super PACs are an unwelcome development in our politics, and is going to continue to try and find ways to reform them,” Axelrod said. “But right now, these are the rules.”
Yet at the same time, Democrats were campaigning against Wall Street excesses, a Republican frontrunner practically born on a corporate board, and towering billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and David Koch, who tried to buy victory for Republican candidates nationwide. The cognitive dissonance was palpable.

Even after the Obama campaign offered the group its blessing, fundraising was slow for Priorities USA for another basic reason. While political consultants Bill Burton and Paul Begala traveled the country giving an impressive presentation about Mitt Romney’s polling vulnerabilities and potential ad buys, both men lacked a fundamental attribute necessary for such high-dollar fundraising: influence with the President.

Enter Rahm Emanuel. The former White House chief of staff, now mayor of Chicago, has the President’s ear and can speak to the priorities of a second term. Not surprisingly, the pace of Priorities USA’s fundraising soon picked up, and Democrats found themselves even closer to the Republican model of corporate politics that exude a strong scent of influence-peddling.

Sadly, this scramble for corporate money is not new for many Democrats. While much attention has been paid to conservative abuse of Citizens United, in reality, it is Democratic insiders who are most responsible for the systemic acceptance of the corrupt vehicles created by unlimited money.

Specifically, it was Democratic lawyers and fundraisers who exploited Federal Election Commission (FEC) loopholes to create soft money in the 1990s. It was Democrats who, like the conservatives behind the “swift boat” attacks on John Kerry, exploited the tax code to pour millions of dollars into so-called “527s” that flooded our elections in 2004. And, in partnership with Republicans, it was Democrats who asked the FEC to allow candidates to appear at super PAC events.

The paradox is obvious. Democrats have historically carried the mantle of reforming our financial systems and standing up for working families. Democrats have claimed the posture of fighting the Big Money interests trying to buy our democracy. Yet time and again, Democrats have tripped over themselves to exploit any avenue to accept unlimited, corporate dollars to fund elections. And the election of 2012 was no exception.

Zero Tolerance

The experience of the last couple of decades should tell us something: The task of building a reform movement cannot be left to our elected officials and Washington consultants. Too often, those working within our political system are incapable of self-reform. Instead, changing our campaign-finance system is a responsibility that progressive donors and activists must shoulder.

Political donors, especially those who give large sums, have a responsibility to abandon the entities created by Citizens United and shun the candidates that still embrace them. In fact, donors hold more leverage to create a movement for reform than almost any other actor in the political system.

This past cycle, progressive donors confronted incredible pressure, especially from Democrats, to support the re-election of the President and preserve a Senate majority. In many cases, despite moral hesitation, big-dollar donors ignored their better angels and supported the super PACs backing Obama for America (Priorities USA), Senate Democrats (Majority PAC), and House Democrats (House Majority PAC).

Some donors, like billionaire Warren Buffett, made a principled decision: Never donate to the super PACs created by the Citizens United decision. “I don’t want to see democracy go in that direction,” Buffett told the annual shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. “You have to take a stand some place.”

Buffett is absolutely right. To build a mandate for reform, both large- and small-dollar donors must turn their backs on the political entities spawned by Citizens United. Until they do, politicians will be enabled to pay lip service to reform publicly, yet quietly know that their financial backers will still support their participation in a corrupt system.

Some will say that Democrats must embrace corrupt money to stay competitive—but the argument is both self-serving for politicians and unmoored to reality. The problem with unlimited campaign money under Citizens United was never that it would necessarily advantage one party over another. The problem is that the money will systemically corrupt both governing parties that rely on the funding to win elections. And it will enrich an entire industry of consultants who defend the status quo.

A subset of donors will also continue to give to organizations dedicated to campaign-finance reform or increased disclosure, and such support certainly helps educate the public about the corrupt legislative and policy outcomes that will flow from a system of unlimited, often-undisclosed money. But the most important thing that high-dollar donors can do—the men and women closest to candidates, campaigns, and their lobbyists—is to give nothing, zero dollars, to any vehicle created by Citizens United or subsequent decisions. Washington will notice.

Citizens and Activists

Many activists have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision—either by amending a portion of the Bill of Rights or by amending the Fourteenth Amendment, to deny constitutional personhood to corporations. There is real energy behind this movement: Citizens across the country have engaged local city councils, county boards, and state assemblies across the country, in both red states and blue. This energy has brought many people into the conversation about how money has corrupted our politics, and I’m heartened by the work these activists have done. The organization and drive behind these efforts, if channeled towards achievable goals, will remain a huge asset to the reform movement.

And there’s no doubt that a mandate for reform is growing. The question we face is whether we can unite to channel that energy into tangible action. To do so, we must first acknowledge that a constitutional amendment is unlikely to succeed, regardless of whether it targets the First or Fourteenth amendments.

Second, we must accept our role as citizens, and especially as progressives, in pressing Democrats to eschew corrupting money. We can do this by passing state-level reforms to stop the tide of corruption locally and proving the popularity of clean elections. Grassroots movements in both New York and California are on the cusp of real progress.

We can also do this by supporting candidates in the next elections who reject the support of groups created by Citizens United, as my friend Elizabeth Warren did in Massachusetts—pledging with her opponent Scott Brown to refuse any outside money.

We can do this by pressing our national elected officials to pass legislation that updates our system of public financing, creates real disclosure laws, and replaces the FEC with a true enforcement agency. And we can do this by turning our backs on the consultants and insiders who continue to game Citizens United for cash.

Unless Democrats embrace election reform as a central tenet of our platform, we will face another era reminiscent of soft money—when the dominance of corporate interests meant that no matter which party held power, the influence of Big Money always won.

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Russ Feingold represented Wisconsin in the United States Senate from 1993 to 2011, and was the co-author of the campaign-finance reform law known as McCain-Feingold. He is also the founder of Progressives United.

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