Many of President Obama’s policy priorities have been showcased, but he’s surely kept a few surprises to unveil in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. Among them, sources say, is a major push to rein in the flood of secret money capturing our democracy and making a mockery of one-person, one-vote. With his approval rating now nudging 50 percent, Obama may be in the midst of a fourth-quarter comeback as he reclaims the high ground on his campaign promises and seeks to restore his credentials as an activist outsider shaking up Washington.
It was five SOTUs ago when Obama said the Supreme Court in its Citizens United ruling “reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign companies—to spend without limits in our elections.” Cameras zeroed in on Justice Samuel Alito, seated directly in front of Obama in the House Chamber, mouthing the word “wrong.” Alito had voted with the majority the previous week in the Court’s 5-4 decision.
Thursday is the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, and reformers have been told that the president may announce executive action in his SOTU speech that would require businesses contracting with the government to disclose political contributions after contracts have been awarded. This would ensure that the contracting process is blind, but also give the public (and the media) the information needed to connect the dots to look for backroom deals or conflicts of interest.
This should be a no-brainer for anyone wondering how the wheels get greased for government contracts, and it will be a significant breakthrough in exposing the influence of campaign contributions whether or not Obama announces executive action in the SOTU itself, or in the days following. Republicans once supported disclosure, but since Citizens United opened up more vehicles for money given anonymously, the GOP has taken a hands-off approach. Democrats, who once opposed disclosure as not going far enough, are now its biggest advocates.There are other steps Obama could take without congressional approval. He could urge the Securities and Exchange Commission to take action on corporate disclosure so that investors know how profits are being spent on politics. More than a million Americans have registered comments at the SEC urging corporate disclosure. Unions are already required to disclose their contributions. He could also urge the IRS to hurry up the rules it is writing to establish bright lines around what “social welfare groups” can and can’t do before they should be seen as political entities. And he could make the nominations necessary to replace holdover commissioners at the Federal Elections Commission who are stuck in a partisan standoff. Even better, he could work with Congress on reforming the toothless agency.The Citizens United anniversary gives Obama a platform to refurbish his own tarnished image when it comes to money and politics. In the 2008 election, his campaign abandoned public financing, hastening the program’s end and ushering in the era of billion-dollar campaigns. In the recent “cromnibus” spending bill, the White House lobbied Congress for its passage despite a provision substantially raising the amounts big donors could give to political parties.
Reformers are fighting against a sense of resignation that has settled in about the huge sums of money in politics. With the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people and money equals speech, any meaningful change seems out of reach. Reformers are looking to Obama to note the Citizens United anniversary and the problem it poses for representative democracy, but also to point to solutions that can overcome the cynicism Americans feel about their government.
Reformers are geared up to mark the anniversary with events in 100 cities across the country and a rally outside the biggest spender of secret money, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, conveniently located just across Lafayette Square from the White House. On Thursday, Democratic leaders in Congress will announce a package of eight bills to curb campaign spending. They include disclosure of political spending, small donor public financing, and a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. More than 125 organizations have signed on to support a “Unity Statement of Principles” that encompasses the legislative remedies. In addition to these good government and left-leaning groups, some interest is beginning to emerge on the right. John Pudner, who helped college professor Dave Brat unseat Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary last year, is leading a newly formed group, Take Back Our Republic, which takes aim at what the right calls “crony capitalism.”
Polls show that voters think politicians are bought and paid for, and that the system is rigged. They also think nothing can be done about it. Obama can help change that attitude by elevating the issue and proposing solutions. “Citizens United paved the way for corporations and billionaires to be able to buy our elections. The flood of political money since then has confirmed Americans’ worst fears about the takeover of our democratic process. But it’s also ignited a movement that’s getting stronger and stronger,” says Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, with millions of Americans signing petitions, organizing events, and calling on Congress to overturn Citizens United. Obama can amplify their voice by raising his own.