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Today is the anniversary of one of the more notorious Supreme Court cases of our time: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. For many, the Citizens United ruling seems like the beginning of the end for America – the singular bad decision that allowed wealthy special interests to infiltrate and destroy representative government.
The truth is much more complicated. Overturning Citizens United is an important and worthy cause, but it is not the panacea so many presidential candidates, pundits, and activists claim. If Citizens United were thrown out tomorrow, it would remain perfectly legal for special interests to fund the political careers of the politicians who regulate them, send public servants on lavish vacations disguised as fundraising junkets, and generally do whatever it takes to keep their lobbyists writing our laws. Just like it was before the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision.
A single-minded focus on overturning Citizens United actually hurts our nation’s chances at meaningful anti-corruption reform. For the first time in decades, millions of Americans are demanding a government that serves us, not special interests. Even if we succeed at reversing Citizens United, we will only have eliminated a few of the myriad avenues used by special interests to buy government influence. Politicians will keep rubber-stamping bad laws, and regular people will suffer the consequences.
To truly fix our corrupt political system, we must think bigger.
The curious case of Billy Tauzin
One of the more egregious examples of political corruption comes in the form of America’s astronomically high drug prices. This is no accident; it is a deliberate feature of legislation passed by our own Congress. Federal law prohibits Medicare from negotiating lower prices with drug companies. As a result, Medicare patients pay nearly 60 percent more for drugs than do patients receiving care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is not bound by the same anti-negotiation restrictions.
The sequence of events that led to this policy is sickeningly familiar to anyone who follows the way special interest money warps our political system. In the year leading up to Congress’ vote on what eventually became a 1,000-plus page bill, the pharmaceutical industry filled legislators’ bank accounts with campaign contributions. Lobbyists seeking to influence the bill outnumbered members of Congress two to one.
“The pharmaceutical lobbyists wrote the bill,” explained Representative Walter Jones, a Republican from North Carolina, who received the legislative tome less than 24 hours before its scheduled vote.
In order to avoid public scrutiny, the legislation was hustled through at 3 a.m. It ultimately passed, in large part due to the instrumental leadership of then-Congressman Billy Tauzin. Ostensibly as a reward for his hard work ushering the bill through Congress, Tauzin was later named president and CEO of PhRMA, the leading pharmaceutical industry trade group.
And just like that, special interests were able to buy public policy that hamstrings the competitive market and hurts regular Americans.
This happened in 2003, a full seven years before Citizens United, and equally perverse manipulations of the policymaking process continue to this day on nearly every issue — from banking to telecommunications; energy to agriculture.
Citizens United is not the sole, or even the primary, source of political corruption in America. Rather, it is just one piece of an enormously complex problem. If we have any hope of fixing it, we must embrace that complexity, not fall prey to oversimplification.
Money well spent?
It can hardly be said that Citizens United was good for democracy. So long as the Supreme Court’s decision stands, so-called “independent groups” funded by corporations, unions, and a small handful of incredibly wealthy individuals can now invest unlimited sums of money in politics.
In the post-Citizens United era, secretive groups like Patriot Majority on the left and Americans for Prosperity on the right regularly flood the airwaves with manipulative political ads. A few hundred rich families dominate election spending. The American public witnesses an ugly spectacle, as contenders for the most powerful office in the land embark on desperate pilgrimages to seek the favor of a single billionaire.
Yet the money only goes so far. In 2012, nearly all of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s preferred candidates lost on election day, despite Adelson’s injection of more than $100 million into races across the country. In 2016, significant financial support from outside groups has yet to pay off for GOP presidential hopefuls like Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. SuperPACs have failed to successfully thwart the meteoric ascendance of Donald Trump, and they are certainly not doing much to help Hillary Clinton fend off an insurgent Bernie Sanders.
To be sure, even when big money loses, it has an impact, shaping who can mount a legitimate campaign and which policies they champion once elected. But the outside spending groups ushered in by Citizens United are only so effective at rigging our political system for financial gain.
The most successful special interests control the legislative process entirely: writing our laws, bribing our legislators with cushy lobbying jobs, and directly funding their reelection campaigns. These corrupt strategies all existed long before Citizens United – and they can be outlawed without waiting for a constitutional amendment.
A movement on the rise
Even if Citizens United and subsequent rulings stay in place, we can make huge strides toward fixing American democracy.
For starters, we could make it illegal for legislators to take lavish vacations paid for by special interests. Ban lobbyists from coordinating fundraisers for and making donations to the politicians they lobby. Slam shut the revolving door between Congress and “K Street,” the lobbyist equivalent of Wall Street, by preventing legislators and their staff from taking lucrative jobs as lobbyists immediately after leaving government. Mandate full transparency of every dollar spent to influence our political system. Change the way elections are funded by creating small donor systems so candidates can run for office without selling out to special interests.
And that’s just for starters.
Not one of these reforms is prevented by Citizens United. Yet together, they could keep the Billy Tauzins of the world from selling our government to the highest bidder.
It goes without saying that these crucial reforms will not be passed by a Congress with a clear stake in preserving the status quo. Instead, we must heed a lesson from some of the most successful reform movements of our time: take the fight local, and build momentum for national change in the process. This strategy is already off to an enormously promising start: a nascent anti-corruption movement has recently scored major legislative victories at the ballot in Tallahassee, Seattle, and Maine, with bigger victories on the horizon.
Breaking the dependency
Americans are fed up with politics as usual. A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans see widespread corruption in our government. For the first time in decades, a veritable groundswell of people is fighting to save our republic. Political reformers have not only the opportunity but the obligation to direct this newfound energy to its most productive use.
Yet many influential public leaders continue to portray the repeal of Citizens United as the one and only answer to political corruption. Their clarion call, while certainly well-intentioned, runs the risk of stymying comprehensive reform. This is especially true in the short-term. Constitutional amendments are notoriously difficult to pass; the most recent amendment was only ratified after 202 years of painstaking effort. We cannot afford to wait that long for reform, especially when it would only tackle a small piece of the corruption problem.
This is not to say that reformers should give Citizens United a free pass. Make no mistake: it was a bad ruling. Its underlying assumptions have been proven wrong time and again. It will hopefully be overturned by a future Supreme Court and relegated to the dustbin of history.
But we have an unprecedented opportunity to restore and revitalize our political system today. To do so, we must broaden our scope beyond Citizens United and tackle the most pernicious, insidious cause of corruption: a government dependent on rich donors, special interests, and lobbyists, not the American people. It will take more than a constitutional amendment to break that dependency.