Saving Our Republic From Citizens United

When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a woman standing outside the hall asked him what sort of government the delegates had created. Franklin responded, "A republic, Madame, if you can keep it."

While this republic was born without legal franchise for people of color and women, it has marched steadily for more than two and a quarter centuries toward fulfilling its promise. It remains a great achievement of human history that Americans established a democratic republic -- governed according to the will of its people rather than the whims of a despot -- and that we've been able to keep it.

Today, on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, in the face of limitless anonymous political donations and dramatically widening inequality, it's an open question whether we can keep our republic. Our government is slowly starting to look more like an oligarchy, governed according to the whims of a special few. Thankfully, there are straightforward steps Congress can take right now to reverse this deeply troubling trend.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court majority in Citizens United v. FEC declared it unconstitutional to restrict a corporation from contributing money to support or attack candidates, opening the door to unlimited contributions from shadowy outside groups, including Super PACs and tax-exempt nonprofits. In the five years since then, spending by such outside groups has more than doubled, and the cost of winning an election has increased astronomically. In the most competitive Senate elections of 2014, more than 70 percent of the outside spending benefiting winning candidates came from undisclosed sources.

Unlimited secret money, coupled with rising inequality, creates a vicious cycle for democracy. The wealthiest among us are able to buy votes for politicians who pledge to cut their taxes, rig financial rules in their favor, and remove regulations requiring them to protect workers and the environment. All these actions make the rich richer and, in turn, enable them to purchase more political support. Lax campaign finance laws lock in a permanent governing class. The absence of disclosure requirements makes this governing class utterly unaccountable.

This not only damages our national character but directly impacts lives. With 95 percent of economic growth since the end of the Great Recession accruing to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, working people lack the purchasing power to pay for college, mortgages, or many basic goods and services. While over two thirds of the public believes that "the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job," a recent study indicates that only 19 percent of the wealthiest Americans, who disproportionately fund elections, agree.

While multinational corporations and Wall Street titans have taken maximum advantage of Citizens United, small businesses have also been negatively impacted by the flood of campaign money. A new poll conducted by Small Business Majority found that 88 percent of small-business owners view money as a negative force in politics, and 66 percent believe Citizens United has hurt modest-sized firms.

But history gives us reason for hope.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has pointed out, the corporate "robber barons" of America's late-19th-century Gilded Age would drop sacks of money on lawmakers' desks in exchanges for business favors. Public outcry gave rise to the progressive movement and the nation's first campaign finance laws -- as well as the major labor protections, antitrust enforcement, and food and product standards.

To take on our modern crisis of corruption, Congress needs to pass legislation to repeal Citizens United, require transparency in political contributions, and empower small donors.

As Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, I have been proud to help lead the fight for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court's unprecedented application of the First Amendment to corporations, giving Congress and the states specific authority to regulate corporate expenditures on political activity.

Today my Democratic colleagues and I will reintroduce the DISCLOSE Act to require that corporations and outside groups disclose all political spending to the Federal Elections Commission.

To counter the flood of big money and ensure that candidates spend time hearing from regular citizens rather than elite contributors, we need frameworks that encourage small donors. That's why I support Congressman John Sarbanes' "Government by the People Act" to match small donations with federal dollars and amplify the voices of ordinary concerned citizens.

After the last Gilded Age, the great jurist Louis Brandeis said the nation had a choice: "We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

The same remains true today.