Six Years After Citizens United, Call to 'Reclaim Democracy' Louder than Ever

On the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that unleashed the scourge of dark and unlimited election spending into the political process, campaign finance reform advocates are spotlighting the tangible solutions that could loosen the stranglehold of corporate interests on U.S. democracy.

“The ruling has given voters fed up with the political system a concrete focus for their anger, and helped push the issue of money in politics from the margins to the mainstream,” Eliza Newlin Carney wrote for the American Prospect on Thursday. “The surging popular concern over political money has set the table for a serious discussion of what’s wrong with the system and how it can be fixed.”

Indeed, polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans see the current campaign finance system as so flawed that it needs either fundamental changes or to be rebuilt completely. What’s more, a Monmouth University survey released last summer showed that only one in ten people in the U.S. thinks that the 2010 Citizens United decision has actually improved the process of nominating presidential candidates.

And according to a poll from political reform group Mayday.US, 91 percent of Democrats and 91 percent of Republicans believe that Super PACs and special-interest groups should have to disclose the source of their funding.

“Shareholders have a right to know how companies they invest in are spending their money, but corporations are keeping their political contributions secret.”
—Senator Elizabeth Warren

Such widespread dissatisfaction “has led to an extraordinary, community-by-community grassroots effort to reclaim our democracy,” law professor and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout wrote on Thursday, citing a “town-by-town, city-by-city” movement toward publicly funded elections that stretches from Seattle to Maine. However, she noted, “for real change we need the entire country to switch.”

On the national front, more than 1 million people have submitted public comments to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calling for a rule requiring publicly held companies to disclose details of their political spending.

“Shareholders have a right to know how companies they invest in are spending their money,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on a call with reporters on Thursday, “but corporations are keeping their political contributions secret.”

Doing so is “fundamentally wrong,” she continued, as “it creates an elite that can use investors’ money to promote their own political preferences.”


Warren, along with Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.),  and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), is demanding the SEC continue drafting and seeking comments on a disclosure rule, despite a rider tucked into last year’s omnibus spending bill, which said that the SEC can’t finalize such a rule.

“Republicans jammed a one-year rider into the must-pass spending bill to try to tie the SEC’s hands, but there is absolutely nothing preventing the agency from making real progress toward an eventual rule,” said Warren. “The SEC should stop delaying and get to work on outlining a meaningful disclosure rule.”

Meanwhile, reformers are hopeful that President Barack Obama—who said in his State of the Union speech last week, “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections”—will issue an executive order requiring current government contractors to disclose their political contributions.

“We are talking about a rapid movement in this country towards a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected or who does not get elected.”
—Senator Bernie Sanders

Such an order, The Hill reported this week, “would affect about 70 percent of top companies.” According to a Public Citizen analysis, 70 of the Fortune 100 companies hold federal contracts totaling at least $100,000, including Exxon Mobil, General Motors, Bank of America, Google, and Verizon.

“The president has spoken loudly and the public is watching. As we approach the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, we look to him to take the action he can pursuant to the power of the presidency, and issue the executive order that will make great strides in cleaning up secret money,” wrote Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, and Stephen Spaulding, senior policy counsel and legal director at Common Cause, in an op-ed marking the occasion.

For his part, in a letter to supporters on Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders described Citizens United as “one of the most disastrous Supreme Court decisions in my lifetime.” Sanders has repeatedly called to overturn the ruling. 

Noting that he is the only candidate running for the Democratic nomination who does not have a super PAC, Sanders declared: “Let’s be honest and acknowledge what we are talking about. We are talking about a rapid movement in this country towards a political system in which a handful of very wealthy people and special interests will determine who gets elected or who does not get elected. That is not what this country is supposed to be about. That was not Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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