Two-thousand, one-hundred-and-ninety days. That is how long it has been since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission by a vote of five to four.
So far, we have heard quite a bit from President Obama about the problem of big money in politics. The power of the bully pulpit is partly what makes the presidency so important. The bully pulpit can capture the public's attention; that's a good thing. But it's not enough.
Days after the Supreme Court announced its opinion in 2010, the president warned about the dangers that "revers[ing] a century of law" would bring to our democracy by opening "the floodgates for special interests." Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the decision, Obama (a former constitutional law professor and sitting president at the time of the decision) said that the "Citizens United decision was wrong, and it has caused real harm to our democracy."
This year, in his final State of the Union, the president took significant time to talk about the need for a better politics. In a moment of candor, he said that one of his regrets from his time in office is that he didn't fix some of these problems.
The message — that we need to do something to reform our democracy, making voting more convenient and free from discrimination, ending gerrymandering, and making sure that the political system is not dominated by the richest citizens and corporations — is the right one. But the regret is premature.
Obama still has time to make a real and lasting impact on a problem that polls report as one of the most popular to fix regardless of party. Since Citizens United, special interests have spent over $500 million from secret, undisclosed sources. Americans rightly find that bad for democracy, because it makes it harder for them to hold anyone accountable by "following the money." In fact, 91 percent of Democrats and 91 percent of Republicans believe that super-PACs and special-interest groups should have to disclose the source of their funding.
The president's exact words last week were inspiring:
[D]emocracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn't matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest. ...
We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. ...
We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can't bankroll our elections. And if our existing approach to campaign finance can't pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.
In great news for the president, the solutions are easily accessible and while some of them are out of reach for the chief executive to do on his own, some far-reaching reforms are well within his authority. For example, the president could issue an executive order requiring contractor donations to be disclosed in a centralized database, shining a light on 70 percent of the Fortune 100 companies' political spending. For the 2016 cycle, $5.52 million in secret money expenditures have already been made. That's more than four times the $1.18 million that was spent at this point during the 2012 cycle.
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The president also mentioned in his speech that he would be touring the states and calling on them to pass reforms. That is an important part of reforming our system and we applaud this choice. While traveling, he should encourage states and localities to institute small-donor systems to finance elections. In November 2015, voters in Maine and Seattle just adopted new small-donor systems by double-digit margins, and more should follow suit. Under such programs, qualified candidates for local or state office run for office with a mixture of small donations and limited public funds, transforming elections. For example, in New York City, about 90 percent of candidates in the most recent election participated in the program, and were able to reach out to their own constituents rather than focus all their attention on wealthy, out-of-district donors. The president should also encourage states to enhance disclosure and call on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and send to states for ratification.
And even though Congress is prone to gridlock, he should renew his calls on Congress to act and pass the Disclose Act, an updated presidential public financing system and a congressional public financing system to build on the momentum we are seeing in the states to lessen the power of moneyed interests.
However, all of the encouragement in the world to the states and Congress will have less influence if the president fails to move forward on the meaningful reforms that are within his own grasp to achieve. Americans need to believe that those in power are willing to personally take on corporate special interests when they're able to do so. Americans are well aware of those same corporate special interests taking on our democracy.
There are far too many examples of popular policies losing out in Washington due to the power of special-interest money. Look no further than Congress's failure to take on the gun lobby's strident opposition to strengthening background checks — a policy supported by 85 percent of Americans (regardless of party). Here, the president took executive action to improve the status quo. But none would argue with the notion that much more needs to be done, along with Congress, to rein in gun violence.
Right now, 85 percent of Americans believe we should "fundamentally change" or “completely rebuild” the system for funding political campaigns. And the president needs to set an example by issuing his executive order shining a light on secret campaign money. It benefits democracy, and it benefits his policy legacy to strengthen the economy, grow jobs and protect our safety.
Two-thousand, one-hundred-and-ninety days.
The president has spoken loudly and the public is watching. As we approach the sixth anniversary of Citizens United, we look to him to take the action he can pursuant to the power of the presidency, and issue the executive order that will make great strides in cleaning up secret money.