This article was originally published by POLITICO.
The late Rep. Claude Pepper described elections as that miracle in the Constitution that, every even-numbered year, gives the American people the right to grab the steering wheel and decide a direction for the nation.
But in this election, that steering wheel has been seized by other hands.
Thanks to Supreme Court rulings telling us that “money is speech” and “corporations are people,” this campaign is all about mountains of money from secret donors. Those hands on that steering wheel are holding a fist full of dollars.
When a country is struggling to find its footing after a near collapse of the economy, you would expect a national election to be a robust debate about the new ideas needed to fix our economy and put people back to work.
But it’s not happening. This campaign is about money — an avalanche of money. And it’s corrupting our democracy.
Government is now being bought and sold on the auction block by unlimited money from anonymous buyers.
The growth of money in politics didn’t just start with this election. In recent decades, campaigns have become more and more expensive. Candidates spend an inordinate amount of time raising campaign money.
But this year is different in an ugly way. The money dwarfs anything we’ve seen in the past. It’s like comparing a sprinkle with a downpour. It also created a shroud of secrecy.
The Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in Citizens United gave a green light for wealthy donors to purchase the government they want with unlimited mega-donations to super PACs. Add to that the brazen misuse of 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations for political advertising. Big donors can make unlimited contributions and hide behind a veil of secrecy.
Candidates have become mere hood ornaments in some races as wealthy donors and their super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations square off against each other. Their proxy campaigns often spend far more money than the candidates’ campaigns. It is the ultimate perversion of our political system. We need to stop it!
The world’s greatest democracy is now witnessing the disgrace of its government being sold to the highest bidder.
There is no honor in the way we are selecting our leaders. We have to fix this now. Both political parties have a responsibility to understand the danger this poses to our country and to actively work to change it.
The first step is obvious and easy. Congress should enact the DISCLOSE Act, which will require immediate public disclosure of all political contributions. It will allow the American people to learn the identity of the millionaires and billionaires behind the anonymous contributions. The DISCLOSE Act won’t solve the entire problem, but it’s a first baby step in the right direction.
One approach to fix our campaign finance mess would be to enact a constitutional amendment that allows limits to be set on campaign contributions. But this requires 67 votes in the Senate — unlikely today with aggressive GOP opposition. Even if it were possible, it would also take years to do. Still, it is worth the effort.
Public funding of campaigns is another idea. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has been working with others on a plan that calls for public financing. Admittedly, it is unlikely in the face of a determined opposition in Congress. But it is a worthy idea that should be part of the response.
Another would be a federal law requiring TV stations to offer the lowest rate for political advertising to candidates and political parties, coupled with a requirement that they charge a high multiple of that rate for other political advertising from those who are not candidates or political parties. If super PACs were required to pay five or 10 times the cost of political advertising that the candidates and their parties pay, it would make less sense to form a super PAC.
In the end, it’s up to the voters.
In the coming weeks, voters can still demand to know whether candidates will work to repair the mistake made by the Supreme Court in Citizens United and end the corruption of money in our elections. They can also demand to know where candidates stand on the big issues.
Will they support a Simpson-Bowles plan to set our country on a new path that can lead to an expanding economy, new jobs and lower deficits? Will they really fix our Tax Code and make it simple and fair? Are they willing to discuss solutions to climate change? Will they support a new energy policy that makes us less dependent and more secure? Will they commit to never again send our soldiers to war while charging the cost to a future generation? Will they take steps to put Social Security and Medicare on a solid financial foundation?
These and so many other issues need urgent action.
The American people can still have the last word.
They alone can pledge their votes to those campaigns with the best ideas — rather than those supported by the most money.
Former Sen. Byron Dorgan is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
- The Search for Political Money: Is it Time Well Spent?
The Huffington Post, September 6, 2012