Lawmakers Fight Money in Politics

Rep. Keith Ellison pushes back on Citizens United and rips attacks from Rep. Allen West.

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TR: Are there individual reforms that you would like to see made to campaign financing, besides reversing Citizens United? After all, before that ruling, there was already plenty of money in politics.

KE: There are tons of things I'd like to see. I wish we could publicly finance every campaign. I wish we had ranked-choice voting. I wish we had a limit on how long election season can go so that we don't have to inundate voters with this stuff for three years in advance of a presidential election. So there's no shortage [of ideas] -- we got that.

What we lack is a mass movement that the average citizen can connect to and therefore make demands on their public leaders. The missing piece of the puzzle is that you've got a middle-class family that wants access to a doctor; you've got somebody with credit companies hounding them for student debt they acquired 20 years ago; you've got somebody who can't find a consumer advocate to help them understand their mortgage. The source of all these problems is money in politics.

People with money can populate Congress with people who are favorable to them through campaign donations, through independent expenditures. Once they get the people they want there, they can pay to lobby Congress to make sure that the people they put there do what they want them to do. And where are the American people's voices in all of that? They're lost.

TR: There's an argument that unions have profited from Citizens United, too.

KE: A lot of people make this big debate about "What about the unions?" You know, unions have to have votes on the political positions that they take, and if their members don't like it, they can even get a refund. That's not the case with a corporation.

If I work for Target Corporation, and they want to fund a candidate who hates gays or something like that, I don't get any money back on that. I don't even have any part of the decision, even if I'm a shareholder. There's something wrong with that.

TR: Although President Obama has expressed support for a repeal of Citizens United, in February he also signed off on his campaign's decision to get more donors for pro-Obama super PACs. What are your thoughts on that?

KE: People can take legitimate points in favor of, and opposed to, the president's decision to set up a super PAC. When I mention the corrosive role that Citizens United plays, I mean that it corrupts everybody, but the president has a legitimate point of view when he says that he cannot "unilaterally disarm." If I'm trying to make reform, I cannot put myself in a position where I cannot be a competitor in this race. Otherwise, by not participating in this new system, I end up ceding the election to Mitt Romney, and there is no hope. We've got to fight back.

If the president takes that position, you won't hear me criticize him for that. Again, I am pragmatic about this thing. I'm not taking an academic approach to this. We've got to get rid of Citizens United now. Immediately.