Folks, we have a problem. It's bigger than health care, global warming, and the economy because it cuts to the heart of every big issue we face.
The symptoms of this problem are clear:
Instead of doing the nation's business, elected officials are spending a third of their time or more dialing for special interest dollars in never-ending campaigns for reelection. Industry lobbyists are helping to write the very bills in Congress that affect their bottom line, placing private profit ahead of the public good. Billions of taxpayer dollars are going to benefit big contributors through earmarks, subsidies, and special regulations. And that is only the beginning.
The problem is big money in politics.
We've known this all along. Nine in ten Americans believe Congress does not listen to the needs of average citizens. Eight in ten are concerned that big spending by big interests is preventing Congress from meeting the enormous challenges facing our nation today.
And just when we thought that corporations had amassed as much political power as any non-human legal entity lacking constitutional protection possibly could, a slim majority of the U.S. Supreme Court today decided otherwise. Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has overturned decades' worth of established precedent limiting corporate money in federal elections in Citizens United v. FEC, thereby opening the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending.
What does this ruling mean? Consider the influence a single corporation like Exxon Mobil could wield in the upcoming energy and climate debate if it is able to not only lobby on Capitol Hill but spend unlimited sums on the election or defeat of candidates. With $85 billion in profits during the 2008 election, Exxon Mobil would have been able to fully fund over 65,000 winning campaigns for U.S. House or outspend every candidate by a factor of 90 to 1. That's a scary proposition when you consider that the health of our planet is at stake.
The Supreme Court and the special interests have spoken. It's time for the people to respond.
That's where you come in. Believe it or not, there's a solution to this problem already working in seven states and now moving ahead in Congress. The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by congressional leaders in the Senate and House, would let qualifying candidates combine small citizen donations with matching public funds rather than campaign on corporate money. It's picked up over 120 bipartisan cosponsors who are sick and tired of dialing for special interest dollars, and the program has long been upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court.
Because free speech isn't free when only the rich are heard, the Fair Elections Now Act would cherish the First Amendment by providing opportunities for real political expression to qualified candidates regardless of party, wealth, or personal connections. In return, those candidates would say no to special interest contributions so they're beholden to the voters alone.
As a former U.S. Senator, I got to experience the thrill of public service and the frustration of a system increasingly beholden to special interests. But for all the mounting influence of big money in Washington, one thing at least remains true today as it did when I served: the voices of citizens standing firm for positive change can and do get through. I can think of countless times in the Senate when hearing from my constituents gave me the firepower to act on an important conviction and made all the difference.
We know the problem, we know the solution, and now is the time for change. I ask you to tell your representatives in Washington that you're counting on them to end the endless money chase and restore public confidence in government by cosponsoring the Fair Elections Now Act today. And I urge you to multiply your impact by recruiting your friends and neighbors to the cause, writing and calling your representatives and local press, visiting their district offices, and joining the You Street campaign.
The overwhelming majority of Americans support Fair Elections, Congressional leaders say they support our bill, and the President has said he'll sign it into law. Now it's up to us.
Bob Kerrey is a Co-Chair of Americans for Campaign Reform, who have launched the You Street initiative for public funding at www.youstreet.org.