Why We Need a Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United

Who do you think politicians are more responsive to: (A) ordinary voters, or (B) rich funders? If you chose option B, you'd be right. But we have a chance to fix that.

This isn't an abstract issue. The economic elites whose opinions politicians follow have widely different policy views than average Americans. Take the minimum wage. If you ask the general public whether the minimum wage should be set high enough that a family with a full-time worker will earn more than the poverty line, 78% will say yes. 78%! That's incredible in a time of divided politics. But if you ask the wealthy (average income over $1 million annually) the same question, only 40% will agree.

And guess whose views Congress is following? The real value of the minimum wage is actually lower today than it was in 1968. The result? 52 percent of fast food workers end up on public assistance, with similar stories for other minimum wage workers, such as hotel maids and nursing home assistants.

Meanwhile, the "carried interest" loophole--a legalized tax scam that lets hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than their secretaries, and which almost nobody is willing to defend publicly--endures, because the Wall Street financiers who benefit from it have captured both parties.

And what about global warming, the greatest challenge of human civilization yet? Seventy percent of Americans (including 57% of Republicans) support federal and state limits on greenhouse gases, even if it means higher energy bills (which it doesn't have to). But our government remains paralyzed because of the unholy political influence--measured not in votes or popular support, but in dollars--of fossil fuel corporations and a small number of reclusive billionaires.

It won't be easy to fix this system. Any solution must be a delicate balancing act between the ideal and the politically realistic. It might be best to let cities and states experiment, and see what works well in practice.

But the Supreme Court has made that almost impossible, in a series of decisions that have crippled the public's ability to control the influence of money in our politics. In 1976, the Supreme Court committed its original sin by saying that political dollars count as "speech" under the First Amendment. That was bad enough. But in 2006, the Court struck down Vermont's state campaign contribution limits on the theory that they were "too low." Then in 2010, the Court's infamous Citizens United decision held that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in federal elections. The Court also hobbled federal and state efforts to provide non-wealthy candidates the tools to run a fair race against millionaires. And this year, the Court's McCutcheon decision said that ultra-rich donors--the kind of people who are not satisfied with writing a $120,000 check to candidates--have a constitutional right to give up to $3.5 million to federal politicians.

There's only one sure way to correct the Supreme Court and restore the original meaning of the Constitution: an amendment.

This fall, a solid majority of the U.S. Senate voted for a bill that would allow Congress and state and local governments to "set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections." That shouldn't be an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. A vast majority of Americans of both parties support reining in the big money in politics. Over 100 Republican elected officials have gone on record criticizing Citizens United and the damage that it's done to our republic. We need to restore sanity to our system by putting it in the hands of voters, not narrow corporate interests and high rollers.

The problems we face are hard; some seem almost intractable. But this one isn't. We can do this. Our future depends on it.