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Moving Into the Mainstream: Obama Backs Constitutional Amendment on Money in Politics

Liz Kennedy

Much of the attention this week has focused on President Obama’s support for the Super PAC set up by former aides to promote his re-election, freeing his supporters to contribute unlimited amounts. But in this announcement the President also came out in support of a constitutional amendment to decrease the influence of money in politics.

The idea of pursuing a constitutional amendment to allow for sensible control of money in politics has been gaining steam and mainstream support. A recent poll showed that more than half of all voters support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Already, Los Angeles and New York City, as well as a host of other municipalities, have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment. Several bills have also been introduced in Congress, and momentum continues to grow. 

While we wish that President Obama had announced his support of a constitutional amendment in a higher profile manner -- like during the State of the Union address -- the President has the opportunity to continue to discuss his support for a constitutional amendment, and use his bully pulpit to help legitimize an idea that many critics dismiss as too radical or unrealistic.

After all, we’ve already seen that the role of money in politics this cycle is having more severe anti-democratic effects than ever. A report out this week from Demos and USPIRG shows that a tiny number of super wealthy individuals and organizations are responsible for the rise of Super PACs. Forty percent of the total amount of money raised by Super PACs since their inception has come from 35 donors, who each gave over a million dollars. Ninety percent of the money came in contributions of at least $50,000 from just over 500 donors. This vanishingly small percentage of people (or “persons”, in the case of corporations), has a disproportionately large say in our government, drowning out the voices of other citizens.

Americans connect the dominance of big money in our elections and the failure of public policy to address the real needs of real people. Sixty percent of respondents in a recent poll agreed that “the middle class won’t catch a break unless we start by reducing the influence of big banks, big donors, and corporate lobbyists.” 

In reporting on fundraising for the President’s “independent” Super PAC, the New York Times reportedthat “Mr. Obama’s blessing may not be enough for other major Democratic donors, particularly those who disagree with his positions on Israel, his criticism of Wall Street and private equity firms, or his administration’s approach to environmental regulation.” It is that very threat that taking positions which are favored by and in the best interests of the majority of the country, and yet which may not be in line with certain profit interests for business or wealthy individuals, that is so concerning about the dominance of big money in elections. A candidate’s policy choices, both when running for and once in office, can be distorted by their need to raise exponentially larger sums of money.

While in 2008 candidate Obama eschewed the support of outside groups, this time his campaign insists that they can’t “unilaterally disarm” and protests that the President is not making the rules, he’s just playing by them. It is as if they are telling us don’t hate the player, hate the game. But, having decried the “corrosive influence of money in politics” and identified the Citizens United decision as a “threat to our democracy” it is incumbent upon the President to take action to change the rules that govern the use of money in politics to promote transparency and accountability and protect our democracy from corruption.

There is much President Obama can do in the short term. He can issue his executive order requiring disclosure from government contractors; urge the SEC to issue a rule requiring public companies to disclose their political spending to their shareholders; and appoint FEC commissioners who will enforce the law to replace the commissioners whose terms have expired. The President should marshal his full support behind the disclosure and disclaimer legislation introduced yesterday by Representative Van Hollen in the House.

Ultimately though, If the Supreme Court refuses to recognize that the First Amendment was never intended as a tool for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the political arena, than we need a constitutional amendment clarifying that and reasserting public control over our elections. After all, the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact, and the First Amendment shouldn’t be used to trump the rights of “We the people” to establish rules by which we order our democracy and engage in self-government.