A Look into the Demands for Campaign Finance Reform

Spring Cleaning for Campaign Finances?

If you’ve paid any amount of attention to the election cycle this year, you will have heard the term “campaign finance reform." A popular term among Senator Sanders and his supporters, the phrase generally refers to the idea of overturning something known as Citizens United. The term “Citizens United” refers to a 2009 Supreme Court case. The case was sparked off when a Super PAC, or Political Action Committee called Citizens United, a conservative group funded by the Koch brothers, wanted to air a film that was critical of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. However, they were stopped from showing the film by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act which barred corporations and unions from paying for media that mentioned any candidate in periods immediately preceding elections. 

Incensed by this, Citizens United challenged the law, saying that they were an independent entity and should have the right to campaign for whomever they liked without restrictions. This case made its way through the lower courts and all the way up to the Supreme Court when, in a 5-4 ruling, the Court declared that the blocking of the film was unconstitutional. They stopped the government from putting any kind of restrictions on political spending by corporations or unions.

The immediate reaction to this ruling was, as things tend to be in American politics, incredibly divisive. People in support of the ruling claimed that it advanced the cause of free speech, while people opposed to it argued that it opened the doorway to increased corruption and a further breakdown of the political process. President Obama spoke on the ruling saying “the decision gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates.”

Since the Citizens United ruling, Democrats have called for an overturning of the ruling. They point to figures that show that since then, ruling political contributions from outside groups has doubled, hitting nearly record numbers in terms of donations. Many Americans simply feel that allowing big corporations the ability to donate to candidates undermines the very nature of democracy. If one candidate is running to try and stop an oil company from drilling near a nature preserve and is only receiving local donations, while his opponent supports the oil company and receives a huge check from them, it stops looking like the will of the people and appears more like the will of the company.

One staunch opponent of Citizens United has been Senator Bernie Sanders. Throughout his entire presidential campaign, the call to overturn Citizens United and regulate Wall Street has been a constant one. Polls of his supporters often put the Citizens United issue as one that his advocates are most concerned with. This passion led many of Sanders supporters, as well as other like-minded groups, to come together in what they call “Democracy Spring” a play on the famous Arab Spring of 2011.

From April 11th to 16th, protestors organized mass sit-ins at the Capitol building in downtown DC. This was after protestors organized a momentous march from Philadelphia to Washington, an ordeal that took ten days. Thousands swarmed the streets of DC to protest the influx of money in politics, although other issues were among their concerns as well. 

Some are calling this the single largest act of civil disobedience in recent history, with estimates that more than 1,400 people were arrested during the protests on charges of crowding, obstructing, or incommoding. Some activists even tied themselves to scaffolding in the Capitol rotunda. Among the arrests were some notable names, including actress and outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter Rosario Dawson, the leaders of Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the AFL-CIO, and the NAACP, and notable Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig. Also included in the arrest numbers were Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of ice cream juggernaut Ben and Jerry’s.

The organizers claim that even though the protests officially ended Monday the 16th, this is just the beginning of the movement to bring democracy back to America. The campaign director for Democracy Spring, Kai Newkirk, said in an interview with USA Today, “Now we will take the battle into their offices in DC, their home districts, and to their fundraisers, to the party conventions and beyond.”

Despite the ambitious goals Newkirk and other activists have, it does seem like getting over 1,000 people arrested has made some inroads in Congress. Since the protests, more than 100 members of Congress have called for hearings on campaign finance reform legislation. Leading the push is Democrat John Sarbanes from Maryland. He and fellow Democrats have asked the Committee on House Administration and the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on five pieces of legislation designed to overturn Citizens United and expand voting rights. These pieces of legislation are include the Voter Empowerment Act, Government By The People Act, and Democracy for All Amendment

While the initiative shown by Representative Sarbanes is good, it is unlikely to really get anywhere. The Democrats are a minority in both Houses of Congress, and Republicans have been staunchly opposed to any kind of campaign finance reform. The only way these bills have any chance of getting passed would be for a Democratic landslide this November or a large portion of Republicans to feel that the tide of public opinion has shifted so far against Citizens United that to oppose these bills would be political suicide. Unless either of those happens, it doesn’t look like Citizens United is going away, at least until a new President is elected.

The outcome may look bleak; there are dozens of legal hoops to jump through to get something like Citizens United overturned. That’s how big corporations want it. They don’t want to lose the control they have over the electoral system. But things like this, these protests, are good. They show how much people care, how deeply this issue affects them. And if enough people speak up, even DC won’t be able to ignore them.