Money plays too large of a role in elections. To compete in an increasingly money-driven system, candidates spend their days “dialing for dollars” and meeting with interests that can bankroll their campaigns. The recent Supreme Court case Citizens United only makes matters worse, allowing organizations to spend vast sums of money in the dark of night. The public is losing faith in our campaign finance system and rightfully so.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights took a step in the right direction Tuesday morning. Led by Senator Durbin, the subcommittee held a hearing on The Fair Elections Now Act, which would offer a new system for financing campaigns. The Fair Elections Now Act would allow candidates who value grassroots rather than corporate support, to accept matching public funds with small private donations. As a result, there would be increased transparency and accountability for our elected officials, who would respond to voters’ interests instead of deep-pocketed donors’.
Much of the hearing focused on the impact Citizens United has had on elections. Public Citizen’s recent report, “12 Months After” confirms that the damage is clear. Corporate expenditures are at an all-time high, corporate lobbyists wield influence like none other, and transparency is on the decline.
Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, the Brennan’s Center Monica Youn, and Tea-Party election attorney Cleta Mitchell testified before the subcommittee.
Simpson presented a real-world view of electioneering to the panel. He offered a grim picture of our current system, as our elected representatives spend too much of their time “begging” for money. He said legislators hate this aspect of their job, but they continue to do it because it’s necessary to win. However, as a result, America suffers. Simpson ardently voiced his support for changing the current scheme so our elected officials can do what really matters: meeting with other legislators, debating bills on the floor, and offering solutions to our nation’s problems.
Youn spoke of how our campaign finance system allows for “Godiva Chocolate” organizations to thrive. According to Youn, they are “Godiva Chocolate” because they are rich, dark, and we have no idea what’s inside them. Under the current regime, sophisticated and shadowy organizations commit what amounts to legal money laundering. They direct vast amounts of money for their political causes, with no accountability. What Youn was referring to is becoming clearer in every election cycle. We’ve all seen the commercials, “Paid for by Americans for mom and apple pie,” but we don’t know who “mom and apple pie” really are.
Mitchell didn’t see an issue with any of this. She believes our election system works just fine. She even said that it’s a part of elected officials’ jobs to raise money, just like it’s her job as an attorney to seek clients. However, unlike attorneys, our elected officials should not spend their time selling out to the highest bidder.
Senator Franken, who was nonplussed at her testimony, asked her how it’s acceptable that corporations can spend large amounts of money in campaigns, without disclosing it to their shareholders. She dodged the question, saying Franken was “confused.” They tussled for a few minutes when Mitchell, seemingly triumphant said, “We just had a confuse-off.” To which Franken retorted, “Yes, and I won.”
Just as Durbin and Franken challenged the status quo in the hearing today, we must continue to demand that our elected officials are responsive to the people, not other interests. The Fair Elections Now Act is a good start.
Micah Hauptman is a licensed lawyer working with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division