Washington Is in Denial About Citizens United
If the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, then Congress, we need to talk. As we mark yet another anniversary of the Citizens United decision, and with the most expensive election in history looming, it's becoming clearer and clearer that solutions are needed. Those solutions are in reach, yet congressional leadership refuses to act. This Town is in denial.
There can be no question that the flood of spending unleashed by Citizens United has created a crisis in our democracy. By almost any measure, the problem is getting worse:
• The 2000 campaign cycle cost $3 billion, but experts predict campaign spending will hit up to $10 billion this time. This means campaign costs are increasing faster than inflation, the cost of college, or health-care spending.
• In the last 25 years, the average cost of a seat in Congress has risen 64 percent for the Senate and 344 percent for the House.
• Between the two most recent midterms alone, the amount of undisclosed "dark money" spent in our elections skyrocketed 200 percent.
• Outside spending from politically active nonprofits and super PACs has increased 500 percent just since 2012.
• In 2014, for the first time ever, the total amount of money raised increased but the total number of donors decreased.
• The number of lobbyists has increased 245 percent since John F. Kennedy was in office, and that small army now spends more money lobbying Congress than taxpayers do to keep Congress running.
One of the worst side effects of the exploding cost of campaigns is how much time lawmakers have to spend dialing for dollars to raise that cash. And boy do they hate it. Don't take it from us: So says retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats ("It's such a time-consuming distraction"); former Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle ("We can't run a country this way"); the ever-colorful former RNC chairman Bill Brock ("If [the system keeps getting worse] … just shoot me"); and, most recently, Rep. Steve Israel, a former head honcho for Democratic fundraising ("I don't think I can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money"). The situation has become so dire that President Obama highlighted the woes of fundraising fatigue in his State of the Union address.
So if members of Congress would rather quit than deal with this hideous system, why isn't their leadership attempting to do something to fix it? It's certainly not because of voter apathy. As the Pew Research Center found in November, 76 percent of both liberals and conservatives agree that money's influence in politics has grown, and similar majorities support commonsense solutions to change that. And poll after poll shows growing bipartisan disgust with Citizens United in particular. Even Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in Citizens United, has recently spoken out, stating that elements of the decision are not working as they should.
The solutions are at hand, if only Congress would grasp them. Compared with massive challenges like tackling climate change or fighting the obesity epidemic, reorienting democracy back toward average citizens is fairly simple. The DISCLOSE Act, which would expose dark-money flows to full sunlight, passed the House only to fall one vote short in the Senate in 2010. A constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United garnered 54 votes when last considered by the Senate, and has been endorsed by over 600 state and local governments in 41 states.
Tellingly, the vast majority of Americans are not waiting for Washington to play catch-up. From new clean-elections laws in Maine, Seattle, and Tallahassee, to crackdowns on dark money in Montana and California, the American people are speaking out irrespective of party. They are using their voices and their votes to correct what is so clearly broken. Solutions already exist and are working to free elected officials from the burdens of fundraising, reduce conflicts of interest, increase transparency, and hold bad apples accountable for breaking the rules.
This explosion of state and local energy — often overlooked in national political coverage — is a sign of hope that Beltway denial will soon end. With the continued rise of outsider candidates who claim independence from this campaign-finance system, and with the public growing more outraged, congressional leadership can't keep refusing to solve the problem forever. History teaches us that big reform often follows big improprieties, from the post-Watergate campaign-finance system to the post-Abramoff changes in congressional ethics rules. Today we are one scandal away from a stampede to pass the DISCLOSE Act, adopt a constitutional amendment, implement the innovative solutions that are working in the states, or even persuade Justice Kennedy that he erred in Citizens United, securing five votes for sanity.
But it shouldn't have to come to that. Congress, let's call it a crisis now. Admit what is so obvious to everyone outside the Beltway. The sooner we do, the sooner elected officials can hang up the phone on dialing for dollars and start down the path to restoring our democracy.
Norman Eisen is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He previously served in the Obama administration, most recently as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, and before that as President Obama's ethics czar. Nick Penniman is executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the influence of money in politics and putting Americans of all stripes back in control of our democracy.