Lawmakers Fight Money in Politics

Rep. Keith Ellison with other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus(Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)

In the two years since the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that corporate and union political contributions have First Amendment protection, there's also been a steadily growing, although somewhat ragtag, movement to overturn it. The controversial 2010 decision unleashed a flood of now unlimited corporate money in elections. Super PACs (political action committees) have subsequently (and unprecedentedly) raised almost $160 million, and spent close to $90 million, in this election cycle alone.

Pushing back on the decision, 20 members of Congress have since introduced constitutional amendments to reverse Citizens United; and 21 state legislatures, along with more than 147 cities, have proposed resolutions to roll it back (measures that passed in New Mexico, Hawaii and Vermont). And even though 80 percent of Americans oppose the ruling, this growing counterforce hasn't gained much notice outside of liberal political circles. A new coalition of federal, state and local lawmakers, as well as grassroots activists around the country, are now trying to change that.


Last week representatives of the coalition, under the banner of United for the People, assembled on Capitol Hill to announce and sign a "declaration for democracy," which pledges support for an amendment to the Constitution to overturn Citizens United.  Merging their collective power, hundreds of legislators and organizations have signed on, calling for elected officials across the nation to add their names. The group also highlighted the Resolutions Week initiative, which seeks to pass more than 100 local resolutions against Citizens United en masse during the week of June 11.

Among the members of Congress who signed on to the declaration is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; all 77 other members of the group also signed it. Ellison spoke with The Root about the movement's goals, why he favors mass action over "academic discussion" on the issue and his thoughts on those "communist" accusations against his caucus from Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.).

The Root: What inspired the Progressive Caucus, and other political groups, to start this movement now?

Keith Ellison: There is a whole grassroots movement of nonprofit organizations that has been focusing on this move to amend. What's happening now is a consolidation of the movement. There were about 13 different constitutional amendments offered by various members — myself, Ted Deutch, Donna Edwards, John Conyers, Bernie Sanders, a whole bunch of people. Everybody liked their little approach, which is fine — that's democracy. But what we decided to do, rather than have all these disparate things, was get together on the essential issue and work with the community to come up with a declaration.


TR: If the declaration doesn't hinge on a specific amendment or tactic for overturning Citizens United, what does it do exactly?

KE: The declaration would not be the language offered as the constitutional amendment. What the declaration says is, "We declare our support for amending the Constitution of the United States to restore the rights of the American people, undermined by Citizens United and related cases, to protect the integrity of elections and limit the corrosive influence of money in our democratic process."


This is language that all of us agree to, that all of us can galvanize behind — members of Congress, members of city councils, community activists from groups like Move to Amend, Public Citizen, People for the American Way and others. We said, "Why waste time arguing about the fine points of what the language of a constitutional amendment should be, when we don't even have a public movement to drive it?" We need to get the wind behind our back first, and then, once we have a Congress who can move it, and states that would be willing to do it, then we can fight over exactly where the periods and the commas go. But right now we need a mass action.

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.


TR: In other news, last week Rep. Allen West doubled down on his view that progressive members in Congress are, in fact, communists. As a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have you spoken to Rep. West about his allegations?

KE: Here's all I got to say about that. The more effective the Progressive Caucus is, the more we should expect unprincipled, untrue attacks on our character and everything else. If we were not doing anything, we wouldn't be the subject of anybody's attacks.


But because we are out there — aggressively arguing for a greener America, a more equal and inclusive America, economic justice for working and middle-class people, peace — then people who want to support polluters; who want to support racial, economic and religious division; and who want to funnel more money to the rich, they're going to be mad at us.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.

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