My Turn: Overturn Citizens United and empower small donors

  • Thursday, August 25, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Since the inception of our democracy, Americans have been concerned about the undue influence of powerful corporations. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.”

This warning was cast aside by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 when, by a 5-4 vote, it ruled in the Citizens United case that corporations enjoyed the same First Amendment rights as people. This unprecedented decision ignored the artificial legal status of corporations, disregarded the corrosive effect of unlimited corporate political spending and dismissed the significance of a century of regulation of corporate political activity.

Corporations are not living, breathing people. Corporations have a specific, narrow purpose — to make money for their shareholders. They are not charged with considering the broader public good.

Corporations can amass huge financial resources. They can apply those resources through professional lobbyists and strategic political spending to achieve legislative results on issues of great financial importance to their own special interests. Average citizens do not have the time, knowledge or resources to either understand or oppose such measures.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens observed in his dissent in Citizens United that the majority’s opinion was “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

Absent a reversal by the court, the Constitution must be amended to overturn Citizens United. A constitutional amendment requires passage of the proposed amendment by a two-thirds vote of the Senate and the House and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Sixteen states have already passed resolutions in support of such an amendment, including two by statewide referendums that produced overwhelming anti-Citizen United majorities — 74 percent of voters in Colorado and 75 percent of voters in Montana.

On Sept. 11, 2014, the U.S. Senate considered a proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United through a motion to end debate and vote on the merits of the amendment (a cloture vote; S.J. Res 19, 113th Congress). Fifty-four senators voted in favor of that motion. Only four senators (including Lisa Murkowski) declined to vote on the measure.

We must continue to push to overturn Citizens United. That case was wrongly decided. The resulting deluge of political spending is converting our democracy into a plutocracy — government by the wealthy. But there are creative legislative actions that Congress can pass in the interim. One step is to encourage small donors to contribute to candidates through a refundable tax credit of up to $200. This approach has been proposed by Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., in H.R. 3586 (113th Congress). Another approach is public funding that would multiply small donations of up to $150 at a 6-to-1 ratio for candidates who promise not to accept individual contributions in excess of $1,000 (a $150 donation would yield $900). This approach has been proposed by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., in H.R. 20 (113th Congress). These and other creative solutions are needed to take back our democracy from the effects of Citizens United.

According to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of the U.S. population ( a mere 32,976 donors) accounted for an astounding $1.18 billion of political contributions at the federal level in the 2014 elections — 29 percent of all the political fundraising that was disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. Over 70 percent of all reported federal political spending that year came from the top 0.26 percent of the population.

Common sense tells us that politicians carefully consider and have a strong incentive to adopt the views of those who finance their campaigns. Common sense tells us that the priorities of the rich are not necessarily the priorities of the middle class or the poor. If we want an America that is more responsive to the vast majority of Americans, “We The People” — not corporations — must do more to level the civic playing field. The continued success of our democratic experiment is at stake.

• Margaret Stock is a retired U.S. Army Reserve officer who has taught constitutional and national security law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Law School and the U.S. Army War College, she is running as an Independent in Alaska in the November 2016 for U.S. Senate.

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