Think Money in Politics is a Problem? You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

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On Wednesday, House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and campaign finance reform champion Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) held a forum centered on the issue of money in politics. They showed they understood the abysmal state of how our nation’s elections our paid for — and heard grim testimony from experts that the “perfect storm of money in politics” in 2012 will only continue to get worse if we do not enact reform.

The event was a “forum” rather than a hearing because Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the chair of the Committee on House Administration, refused to call a hearing on this vital issue. In an abject failure of open government and transparency, he did not even let the Democrats use the cameras that are built in to the room to record and broadcast the session, forcing them to hire an outside film crew.

The House Democrats clearly understand the problem of money in politics and how the Supreme Court made it even worse with its notorious decision in Citizens United v. FEC. But, experts warned that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg and the problem will continue to get worse, as corporations and wealthy individuals adjust to the new possibilities allowed by the Court’s disastrous ruling. Here are some of their comments:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for passing the DISCLOSE Act and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United: We must “call on our colleagues to protect the voices and the votes of Americans … Ultimately we must fight to amend the Constitution”.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.): The decision in Citizens United “could only be made by people that had no clue how the American political system works in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) worried about how money in politics has degraded the ability of Congress to respond to the big issues facing America: “I wonder about the effects on this institution … We are not functioning well and the American people are not being well served.”

Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas): “Citizens United has truly diminished the role of the individual in electing our elected officials.”

Far more ominous were the predictions by the expert witnesses about the future of campaign finance. Monica Youn, from the Brennan Center for Justice, said that 2012 has already seen vast amounts of secret money funneled through shell corporations so that corporations and the wealthy can obtain a disproportionate influence over our electoral system without even owning up to it.

Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center predicted that super PACs would “do the dirty work” of running unprecedented numbers of vicious negative ads, and then be able to “dissolve at the drop of a hat” and reform under a different name, unlike average Americans who have to take responsibility for their actions. Rep. Van Hollen said that compared to these new super PACs, “candidates and campaigns are like using peashooters against bazookas.”

Those in attendance heard about how 69% of Americans want to ban super PACs and how the DISCLOSE Act could at least reveal the source of super PAC spending, but really our problems go much deeper than powerful super PACs.

If we are to restore the voice of average Americans, it will take a lot more than mere disclosure or returning to the already broken campaign finance world we had the day before Citizens United. As Zephyr Teachout, law professor at Fordham University (disclosure: Teachout is on the board of directors of Public Campaign Action Fund) said, “disclosure is extremely important, but I do not think you can X-ray a patient back to health.”

To restore true democracy of, by, and for the people — not campaign funders — we need the Fair Elections Now Act, a system of citizen-funded elections in which small donors’ contributions are matched for candidates who agree to use the system and only take small contributions. This gives a voice to the millions of Americans who are currently being drowned out by unaccountable billionaires and corporations with their super PAC “megaphones.”

Versions of Fair Elections already exist in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut, and in addition to advocating for the national Fair Elections Now Act, Public Campaign is a part of the incredible momentum around establishing Fair Elections in New York state.