MONEYBALL

09.10.14 9:45 AM ET

The New War on Big Money in Politics

Republican senators just cynically backed an amendment that would limit the influence of big donors. But with Americans fed up with corporate influence, will the move backfire?

Savor the moment when 79 senators voted Monday evening to allow debate on a constitutional amendment to restrict campaign contributions. It won’t happen again, at least not any time soon.

Republicans supported the procedural vote to let the “Democracy for All” amendment proceed to floor debate. But they did this only in order to avoid talking about the minimum wage, or pay equity, or student loans—other Democratic priorities more popular among voters than a discussion about the First Amendment and whether money equals speech. 

Republican leader Mitch McConnell is fond of saying no one’s ever lost a race on this issue, and he should know. He once supported a constitutional amendment similar to the one before the Senate this week. Then he favored no limits on spending but full transparency and disclosure of contributions. Now he sings the praises of unregulated, undisclosed so-called dark money, applauding the Supreme Court for liberating the wealthy and confessing at a June conference of deep-pocketed GOP donors that he doesn’t know where he’d be without them.

Whatever McConnell’s motive for waiving the procedural hurdle for the amendment, advocates of campaign finance reform are thrilled to have gotten this far, with the prospect of an up-or-down vote by week’s end, even knowing Republicans will bail and the amendment will fall far short of the 67 votes required to change the Constitution. “Nobody could have imagined at the beginning of this year, this is where we would be right now,” says Marge Baker of People For the American Way, an influential progressive group. “There’s been a sea change in the American people’s understanding of the problem of so much money flooding into our elections. They see a paralyzed government and they’re connecting the dots.”

Polls document a shift in voter attitudes since the 2010 Citizens United decision and the McCutcheon decision in April of this year that further expanded the ability of wealthy donors to influence elections. When Citizens United was debated before the Supreme Court, 56 percent of those surveyed agreed that money is speech. That number has now flipped, with 58 percent no longer believing money is the equivalent of speech. Surveys show growing public disgust with big money in politics, outside money in elections, and corporations having too much influence.

“People believe the system is rigged, and they tie that sentiment to the campaign finance system, correctly in my view,” says Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which advocates for more regulation of corporate political spending. When voters are offered the solution of a constitutional amendment, he notes, they support it by margins of 3-to-1, and that includes Republicans.

“Nobody likes the system, that’s one of the deep ironies,” says Weissman. “Even the beneficiaries of the system don’t like it. They don’t like to ask [for money], and they don’t like to be asked [for money].” 

Advocates of reform say the momentum they’re seeing is comparable to the shift in public attitudes on same-sex marriage. That may be a bit of a stretch, but McConnell too may be pushing it in thinking this is safe territory for the GOP. Democrats are using the three scheduled days of debate this week to tie lack of congressional action on issues the public cares about (minimum wage, pay equity, student loans) to special interest money clogging the system and influencing lawmakers.

The debate in Congress may be mainly for show, but it is happening in the context of increasing public awareness about the threat big money poses. A proposed rule to the SEC that would require publicly held corporations to divulge campaign contributions, for example, has now garnered more than a million supportive comments.

In North Carolina, 90 percent of the money funding political ads in the state’s hotly contested Senate race is coming from outside sources. “People are getting bombarded,” says Baker, and the need for reform is not a hard sell with these voters. “Ordinary people get it, they’re not in a position to buy that kind of influence.” 

On the 2012 ballot, voters in Montana were asked, “Should the congressional delegation be required to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United?” Seventy-four percent said yes. A similar question on the Colorado ballot that year got 73.8 percent support.

Still, a strong sense of skepticism accompanies any effort to change the Constitution, an almost impossibly long and arduous process. The 27th Amendment, which made it unconstitutional for lawmakers to have any change in their salaries take effect before the next Congress, was ratified in 1992, after being submitted to the states 202 years earlier.

If the Democracy for All amendment has a chance to become the 28th amendment, there will have to be a lot more grassroots activity, the equivalent perhaps of a prairie fire sweeping the nation. A growing number of activists are working to make that happen. The pro-reform Mayday PAC, founded by former Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon and Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, is targeting five to eight races this election. And after gleaning the data from those races, they “plan to scale up and go big in 2016,” says McKinnon. Asked what he thinks of the constitutional amendment, he replied via email, “I think we have to battle this issue on every single front every single day.”

David Donnelly is taking information he learned working with the anti-corruption group Friends of Democracy in 2012, which targeted persuadable voters in eight states, and won seven with a message of reform. He’s now with Every Voice, which is using the same strategy in Kentucky in an effort to defeat McConnell. The focus is on “low-propensity voters who will not show up unless someone knocks on their door,” says Donnelly.

Talking to these voters and telling them 341,000 workers in Kentucky would get a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $10.10 an hour is an issue that resonates, says Donnelly. “We should be showing there is a pathway out instead of the president running around the country [raising money] as if he’s on a giant Monopoly board.”

In his forthcoming book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, author Darrell M. West ranks the political power of the 492 Americans who control more than $2 trillion. “We have basically returned to a pre-Watergate era of secrecy and big money,” he told The Daily Beast, which is why he says a constitutional amendment is needed to plug up the holes the Supreme Court blew open with its decisions. And however long it takes it get the amendment ratified, let’s hope it won’t be 202 years like the last one.