Only We the People Can Break Congress's Cash Addiction

Beholden to lobbyists and big-ticket donors, legislators will never flush the secret money out of politics -- unless we force them.

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The Republican Party has historically been a champion of transparency, trusting that the best way to balance free speech concerns with the growing influence of money in politics is a little sunlight. But this week, Senate Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, filibustered the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would curtail secret money in politics. McConnell is the same senator who 12 years ago practically shouted his love of disclosure from the rooftops, telling Meet the Press that "Republicans are in favor of disclosure .... We need to have real disclosure .... Why would a little disclosure be better than a lot of disclosure?"

McConnell now claims that disclosure is an assault on free speech and an attempt by Democrats to harass and intimidate big donors like Charles and David Koch, who have poured unknown millions into recent elections. So why aren't Republicans supporting this version of the act, despite the fact that 91 percent of Republicans believe that PACs and political lobbyists have too much power in Washington?

Democrats point out that the GOP has benefited more from the recent flood of cash into the campaign finance system -- spurred by the January 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision and other federal court rulings. Surely, Republicans' upper hand in the super PAC race is part of the answer, but the truth is, both major parties are completely addicted to cash, and both are unwilling to go to the mat for reform.

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Special-interest money in U.S. politics is a cancer that has paralyzed our democracy. Politicians now spend as much as 70 percent of their time fundraising, while policy debates are fought between competing special interests. More often than not, the public is a tertiary consideration in any given legislative debate.

The obvious results are failed banking and offshore oil drilling protections; failed health, energy, education, spending, and tax policy; and a teetering economy. However, the more insidious results take the shape of painful facts: Once the envy of the world, we are now 49th in the world in infant mortality and 50th in life expectancy. Our banks are still too big to fail, and they paid their executives massive bonuses the year after we-the-taxpayers bailed them out -- with no repercussions. This is what happens when politicians are bribed, lobbyists write the laws, and democracy becomes an auction.

Our nation's founders were expansive, outside-the-box thinkers who dared to be great. We should take a moment to think about how they would view the current system, and, more importantly, what they would do to fix it. This is the question that should be foremost in the minds of all Americans.

DISCLOSE and similar reforms intended to curb the power of special interests are important, but in isolation are stop-gap measures: another incremental proposal to be filibustered or riddled with loopholes. The last time our nation saw sweeping reforms was in 1974, when Congress felt compelled to take action in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Since then, those reforms have been methodically dismantled by the same powers they were created to curb. Politicians occasionally decry the problem, but are unable to advance even the most simple and obvious proposals such as DISCLOSE.

Our leaders have failed. Now, it's up to us, the people.

But this is a common refrain. The real question is how do we the people enact a winning political strategy in the face of the most intransigent political issue in America? How do we get the politician-foxes to put a lock on the hen-house?

What's needed is something so bold and well-organized that it can't be ignored; so comprehensive that it can't be manipulated or written off as piecemeal; and so broadly supported -- by liberals, conservatives, celebrities, civic leaders, scholars, and the disenchanted -- that it becomes the consensus solution.

Many are calling for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. A worthy goal, but a long shot to say the least. Two-thirds of our broken Congress must approve it, and three-quarters of the state legislatures must ratify it. What's needed is a simultaneous effort to pass comprehensive legislation that faces fewer obstacles and promises similarly transformative reforms.

It's not enough to shine a light on the secret money. It's not enough to expand the definition of "lobbying" to include all influence-peddlers. It's not enough to close the revolving door between Congress and K Street. It's not enough to incentivize small-dollar contributions with citizen-funded elections. It's not enough to strengthen a now-toothless Federal Elections Commission. It's not enough to stop Super PACs from coordinating with campaigns. It's not enough to bar members of Congress from raising funds from the special interests they regulate.

But if we do all of these things at once through sweeping legislation, it would fundamentally transform U.S. elections, and create a compelling rallying point for a new and invigorated democracy reform movement. A movement that ceases asking for reform, but starts forcing it, with a well-funded, hard-hitting strategy that unseats politicians from both parties who stand in the way of reform; a movement that unifies the vast majority of Americans from across the political spectrum who agree that we must fix this broken system.

For too long, we've been waiting for someone else to come in and fix the problem. The truth is, the only ones with enough guts to save our country is us.