When Dartmouth hosted the Republican presidential debate in 1999, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, told the audience that he would “fight to the last breath” in order to “eliminate the influence of special interests,” articulating his vision to “give the government back” to the American people.
McCain was referring to his vision to reform the country’s campaign finance system — the centerpiece of his 2000 campaign. His dream eventually turned into the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
Fast-forward 12 years. This month, 42 Republicans in the U.S. Senate successfully filibustered a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 Supreme Court decision that repealed much of BCRA and institutionalized corporate personhood. Also at stake was McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a 2014 Supreme Court decision that eliminated caps on aggregate campaign contributions thereby enforcing the premise that these contributions are speech.
Citizens United, McCutcheon and similar decisions have allowed an infinitesimally small number of billion-dollar funders to hijack American democracy by handpicking the viable political candidates, largely controlling the outcomes of elections and preventing meaningful reform — both progressive and conservative — on a wide range of political issues.
Strict regulations of campaign finance may seem antithetical to American ideals of capitalist democracy, which theoretically allow those with money to spend it as they please. However, the current campaign finance system poses a significant threat to personal freedom and democracy. The Daily Beast reported that in 2012, 60 percent of SuperPAC money came from 132 Americans — only .000042 percent of the American population. Meanwhile, legislators often spend the majority of their time fundraising for reelection, instead of performing their legislative duties.
Politicians do not rely on small-dollar donations of engaged citizens for fundraising. Instead, they focus on a sliver of pertinent donors — particularly the .05 percent of Americans who donated the maximum amount to any political candidate in 2010.
As a result, congressional policymaking responds exclusively to these “economic elites.” Two Princeton University political scientists revealed America’s unfortunate political reality earlier this year when they found that the “average citizen” has “little or no independent influence” upon congressional policymaking.
Democrats and Republicans are unable to effect meaningful change because they are beholden to the interests of influential donors and lobbyists. Should Democrats hope to enact legislation that would combat climate change, or if Republicans want to implement a more conservative tax code, both parties first need to undertake the task of reducing the role of big money in policymaking. Politicians across the board must champion clean elections funded by average citizens for other policy solutions to be feasible.
A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon would pave the way for campaign finance reform and restore representative democracy. But Senate Republicans rejected the opportunity to stem the corrupting influence of big money. Though many politicians remain averse to common sense campaign finance reform in order to protect their own interests, some members of Congress are fighting the broken system. Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., accepts no money from corporate PACs or D.C. lobbyists. She also cosponsored the Fair Elections Now Act, which would implement public financing and allow all voters (rather than just lobbyists, corporations, PACs and other top donors) to determine the outcome of American elections.
Congressman Walter Jones, R-N.C., a staunch conservative on most major issues, joined Shea-Porter in this initiative while also introducing bills to close corporate donation loopholes and reward candidates who run small-dollar campaigns. To end government gridlock, more legislators must join them in their efforts to reform campaign finance and erode the devastating influence of big money in American democracy.