Monday, December 5, 2011

Campaign Finance and Occupy

Check out RIFE member Ben Wofford's great op-ed in last Monday's Providence Journal! It's a great argument for how the goals of the Transparency In Political Spending Act (new name!) align perfectly with both the Citizens United backlash, and the Occupy movement.
Limit corporate sway over voters

As Occupiers become seemingly permanent fixtures in public parks across America, it’s almost commonplace to hear, as one elderly man recently put it, that “corporations are different from human beings” because “they have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts.”

He wasn’t finished. Americans have “a government captured by corporate interests,” one no longer “fair” or “responsive.” “The result,” he vented, “is cynicism and disenchantment.”

But this wasn’t a protestor in Burnside Park. It was Justice John Paul Stevens, writing a scathing dissent in Citizens United v. FEC almost two years ago. In one of the most irresponsible rulings in history, Citizens United struck down nearly 50 years of sensible limits on corporate spending, handing corporations truly limitless and breathtaking new power to influence our elections.

By so restricting government’s ability to regulate spending on speech, the court turned our elections into fresh meat for a corporate wolf pack that eagerly accepted the invitation, spending vast amounts of campaign cash in 2010. What’s more, Stevens’s prediction that growing corporate influence would corrode our faith in government has proved frighteningly accurate. Never before has the opinion of the average person meant so little. Welcome to the Citizens United era.

But there exists another band of citizens uniting — taking to the streets in frustration that their voices might be heard. As pundits struggle to pin down a movement often criticized for its shifting focus — income inequality, corporate greed, unaccountable politics, banks and bailouts — they overlook the common thread that ties them together. Each of these grievances signifies only the dead branches on our sickly democracy. They each grow and originate from one root source: campaigns, elections and politics that are driven more and more by fewer and fewer individuals.

Citizens United revealed the importance of our seemingly arcane campaign-finance laws. It’s the failure of these laws that undergirds not only the Occupy movement, but the very crisis of civic confidence that sparked it. Very soon that crisis could engulf Rhode Island — unless we do something about it. We must.

Money has become the lifeblood of our political process. It decides which candidates win elections and which lose. But the very principles of democracy depend on our equal ability to influence elections. Although the court in Citizens United purported to uphold such democratic principles as the First Amendment, few Supreme Court decisions have produced such undemocratic consequences.

In West Virginia, a coal corporation recently created a political action committee (PAC) to lobby for weakened pollution standards, outrageously named “For the Sake of the Children,” pumping millions of dollars in to fund it. In North Carolina, a candidate for governor used his rich father-in-law to dump millions into a similar PAC to anonymously fund a barrage of campaign ads. Luckily, both cases were caught and exposed. Countless others, however, go unnoticed.

That’s why Rhode Island is in danger. Right now, there exists not one law on the books to prevent similar stories from happening in Rhode Island. They could be happening right here, right now — but frighteningly, we would not even know. Without asking simple but stern questions of corporate donors — Who are you? Where is your money coming from? — we’re all but inviting them to meddle with our elections, and anonymously.

Despite Citizens United’s restrictions, however, all hope is not lost. This spring, Rhode Island legislators will introduce the Rhode Island Disclosure Act, a simple bill that makes common-sense changes to our state’s antiquated campaign-finance laws. For the first time, Ocean State voters would be able to see who is funding whom, online, and with ease. Political groups would also have to reveal whom they coordinate with.

And the act tightens loopholes: No longer could companies fund last-minute TV blitzes the night before Election Day and file the disclosure papers months later, as in one recent Rhode Island election. The act would tighten those requirements in the week before voting.

The Rhode Island Disclosure Act is our chance to finally grab hold of a simple, good idea and make it real. It would allow us to start the rebuilding process to rectify our country’s ailing civic health.

Just ask Justice Stevens. In a post-Citizens world, he wrote, the “democratic duty” falls on citizens “to take measures designed to guard against the [harmful] effects of corporate spending.”

Campaign finance laws like the Rhode Island Disclosure Act are the key to cleaning up our democracy. The very concept of “We the People” depends on it.

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