Happy birthday to the case that was even worse than Citizens United

In today’s political climate, finding public support for anything at 84 percent is almost unheard of. Yet, according to New York Times/CBS News poll last June, that’s how many Americans think money has “too much influence” in political campaigns. A poll released by the Pew Research Center in late November found a whopping 76 percent of Americans believe money has a greater influence on politics today than it has in the past.

Combined with reports finding just 158 families put up half the money for the 2016 presidential campaign by fall, the current state of democracy has never been so clear: it is broken. This is nothing less than the monetary hijacking of our political system, and it is a large factor in the public’s increasing cynicism regarding all things government.

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How did we as a nation ever get to this harrowing point? It stems from an ill-advised Supreme Court ruling that is about to mark its fortieth anniversary: Buckley v. Valeo.

Both of us were elected to the Senate in the 1970s, and ran our campaigns under the Federal Election Campaign Act. FECA put caps on contributions and banned corporations from giving at all. Campaign spending was limited and independent expenditures were prohibited. The purpose of all this was to protect speech: the speech of those who couldn’t afford to contribute massive amounts but whose voice ought to be heard just as much by a candidate.

This system worked, and we’re extremely proud to have earned our seats in this manner. The money was sufficient to fund a good campaign with enough media to get the message out, and we could be sure it was our ideas, not our fundraising prowess, that won the day.

But in 1976, the Supreme Court got it wrong with Buckley v. Valeo: they decided that these reasonable limits on political spending to prevent corruption were a violation of the First Amendment. That case was the seed that reversed decades of jurisprudence, turned the Founders’ conception of free speech on its head and, more than thirty years later, germinated the infamous Citizens United decision.

The impacts of Buckley echo today in the morass of case law coming from the bench that has fundamentally changed who has power in our politics. Citizens United helped spawn super PACs that can collect unlimited individual and corporate donations and use that spending as a threat to bend political actors to their will. Another recent case, McCutcheon v. FEC, overturned long-standing limits on the total amounts any one person can give, and therefore, how much influence they can wield.

Justice Stevens, in his dissent for the latter, laid out the case against the Buckley legacy: “A Democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.” Too much “speech” from one source drowns out the others.

These decisions, and others of their ilk, have had profound consequences on the people we’re electing to lead us. Campaign budgets have climbed astronomically – some Senate elections exceed $100 million with House races in the tens of millions. To be competitive, many members must raise thousands every week of their terms. Dialing for dollars morning, noon and night leaves far too little time to address the truly complex concerns of the American people. These crucial hours are not spent deliberating legislation, staying abreast of policy issues or even voting on bills in Congress.

And the fundraising grind has helped drive politics to the margins by contributing to the breakdown of comity between legislators that is so crucial to getting anything done. Our representatives must respect each other, talk to each other, listen to each other, learn from each other, and work together. If they are spending every waking moment seeking cash to get re-elected, that becomes difficult, and partisan gridlock becomes entrenched.

Before the campaign finance laws spun out of control, there was a private Senators Dining Room with only two tables where colleagues would informally discuss the issues of the day and debate policy with the likes of Sens. Scoop Jackson (D-Wash.), Jack Javits (R-N.Y.), Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Sam Ervin (D-N.C.).  Democrat and Republican, we talked, laughed, shared concerns and ideas.  We grew close – and we found time to work together.  There’s no time for that collegiality now.  The room has been discontinued. 

Our friend, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said recently that legislators these days “go home on Thursday, come back on Tuesday, and try to govern on Wednesday.” This is what has arisen since Buckley, and it is as disturbing as it is dangerous to the fabric of this country.

The naysayers in Washington insist there’s nothing to be done, but they could not be more wrong. We must nullify Buckley. What we need is a fifth vote on the Supreme Court or a constitutional amendment that authorizes Congress to define and regulate political contributions and expenditures. The Court simply got this wrong.

The will of the people is clear: there’s too much money in politics. So if we ever want to get anything done, then Buckley must fall. Our elected officials need to stop fundraising and start leading again.

Johnston served in the Senate from 1972 to1996 and as chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources from 1986 to 1994.  Brock served in the Senate from 1971 to 1977; as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1977 to 1981;  as US Trade Representative from 1981 to 1985; and as secretary of Labor from 1985 to 1987. Both are members of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus.

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