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01.21.10

A Shocking Win for Fat Cats

The ruling allowing unlimited campaign spending is a huge win for special interests. Mark McKinnon and Steve Hildebrand make the bipartisan case for how Congress can fix the political money mess.

The Supreme Court just sucker-punched hope and change and cozied up to the status quo on money and politics. On Tuesday, voters sent a wake up call to Washington, and today the court just gave the voters yet another reason to be mad as hell.

Against the backdrop of angry Massachusetts voters, the Court’s decision today in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing unlimited spending by corporations and unions in elections means that unless there’s serious, bold campaign finance reform in Washington, the notion of any fundamental “change” in Washington just hit the immoveable object: big money. Politicians who ignore the politics of this decision do so at their peril.

Politicians raise more and more money every year. Voters get more and more disillusioned. Something has to give.

There’s a wall of campaign money that separates regular voters from their representatives, and we believe the only way to fix it now is for Congress to respond to the Roberts Court decision with legislation that puts voters in charge. It is also an answer to the angry voters who, in the words of Sen.-Elect Scott Brown, want candidates “not beholden to the special interests.”

We’ve advised and elected dozens of federal and state candidates from our respective parties. We can tell you, unequivocally, that what ruins a good political leader is the unending chase for campaign contributions. Candidates are forced to travel the country begging wealthy people for money instead of finding solutions to our country’s biggest problems. They hate it, but the system forces them to do it.

That’s why today’s decision is both a scourge and an opportunity. In a nutshell, the Roberts Court overturned a six decade-long prohibition against spending corporate and union treasury money to directly campaign for or against federal candidates.

We both believe that there is too much “interested” money in politics today and not enough of the small donor contributions that drove the Obama campaign’s fundraising. The Citizens United decision makes this bad situation worse. It will unleash an unlimited amount of corporate political spending, and fuel an escalating campaign fundraising arms race among members of Congress to keep up. They spend too much time fundraising already—time that gets in the way of doing the work they’re supposed to do.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas is a perfect example. Senator Lincoln complained recently that she had lost $300,000 due to canceling fundraisers when she was “forced” to be in Washington for the health care vote. Now consider her situation knowing that millions will be spent for or against her because of that vote. It’s a catch-22, and regardless of how we feel about Sen. Lincoln and her positions, why do we let stand a system that forces members of Congress to constantly juggle doing their jobs with the fundraising it takes to keep their jobs?

And voters hate it, too, but for different reasons. A survey by the U of T/Austin said campaign donors are more influential with members of Congress than anyone else. In the same survey, voters ranked themselves dead last. Gallup’s 2009 annual ranking of the honesty and integrity of various professions placed members of Congress lower than ever before. Just nine percent of Americans believed it was an honest and ethical job, ranking it only above lobbyists (which debuted on the list at the bottom), car salesmen, and advertising practitioners.

As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says, this situation is untenable. Politicians raise more and more money every year. Voters get more and more disillusioned and angry. Something has to give.

The Supreme Court’s decision gives Congress the opportunity to change all this. The Massachusetts results provide the imperative to act.

Unfortunately, Washington’s response to the Court’s decision will probably be to do as little as possible, and to sell it as a big deal. A small solution to this money problem —the mother of all political pre-existing conditions—will be the equivalent of placing a band-aid on a broken arm.

Like all Americans, we want more leadership from those we elect. Companion bills introduced by Sen. Durbin and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) provides that opportunity. Called Fair Elections, the Durbin-Larson-Jones approach would put the financing of elections into the hands of regular voters and free candidates from the constant pressures of fundraising. Qualified candidates take no more than $100 contributions, and receive public funding by demonstrating support from thousands of these small donors. The public funding is capped, but the amount of small donor money isn’t, leaving candidates continuing to focus on connecting to voters as they run for office.

The overall cost of the system, to literally wrest the control of elections away from special interests, is roughly $800 million a year, less than half what we spent in promoting democracy around the world in the last fiscal year. If promoting democracy is a good thing, shouldn’t we promote it here, too?

The legislation is picking up support. In addition to Reps. Larson and Jones, 124 members of the House have joined as cosponsors. This court decision will speed its momentum, no doubt.

So we say, seize the day, Congress. Don’t think of a quick fix that gives you a sound-bite. Address the real problem and give elections back to the people.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.

Hildebrand is a consultant to Public Campaigns and Common Cause, and was a strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.