March 10, 2011- Last Saturday, I held a town meeting in Montpelier, Vt., to discuss the disastrous Supreme Court ruling of last year which upended our democracy by unleashing a tsunami of corporate spending in our elections. The Citizens United ruling has radically changed our democracy — further tilting the balance of power toward corporate America.
Under the guise of the First Amendment, which protects free speech, the Citizens United decision allows billionaires, powerful corporations and their executives to put unlimited sums of money into campaigns without even having to be identified. What it essentially says is corporations and billionaires can sit in a room and decide who is going to become the president of the United States, a U.S. senator, a congressperson, or governor. That is not what this country is supposed to be about.
Five hundred people packed into a high school auditorium in central Vermont on Saturday afternoon to hear from an expert panel, including: nationally-syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann, Vermont State Sen. Ginny Lyons, Vermont Law School’s constitutional law expert, Prof. Cheryl Hanna, and Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were special guests.
The huge turnout for this meeting tells me the interest in this issue is extremely high and Vermonters are worried about the impact of Citizens United on the future of our democracy.
If we are going to be successful in addressing Citizens United — and its disastrous implications for our democracy — there are at least three approaches that we have to take.
First, by passing legislation like the like the DISCLOSE Act, offered by Sen. Schumer, we would create new requirements which reduce the impact of Citizens United. The DISCLOSE Act would a) force corporations that spend money on campaign ads to clearly identify themselves and make the company’s CEO appear on camera to take responsibility for the ad’s contents; b) enhance financial disclosure information so the public knows where the funding is coming from; c) prevent corporations owned by foreign countries from utilizing Citizens United to influence American politics; d) enable candidates who are negatively impacted by Citizens United funding to acquire ad time at the lowest rates possible. Last year, the Republicans blocked this bill with a filibuster – showing, once again, the Republican attachment to big-money interests.
Even if the DISLCOSE Act were to pass, however, we would still be left with a broken campaign finance system, a system where the wealthy are given a louder voice in our democracy than everyone else. To create a real fix, we need to develop a system for public funding of elections. The Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored by Sen. Durbin, moves us toward a level playing field, limits the power of big money in our elections, and would be an extremely important step forward in creating fair elections.