Saturday, January 20th, 2018, marked one year since Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. President Trump planned to spend the evening hosting a re-election fundraising dinner. While the government shutdown ultimately kept Trump from attending the fundraiser, it was still held for the wealthy few who paid a $250,000 fee expecting to dine at a roundtable with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort. (Many of Trump’s 2020 reelection fundraisers are held at Trump properties, and since Trump has not divested from his businesses he simultaneously receives campaign donations and rental fees.) Over the past year, Trump has raised more than $36 million for his reelection campaign.
The next day, Sunday, January 21st, 2018, marked the eighth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. This case paved the way for allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to pump unlimited amounts of money into our political system. The result of Citizens United is that elected officials listen to their funders (the wealthy few) more than they listen to everyday people living in this country.
While Trump received many small-dollar donations for his reelection campaign, it’s not surprising to see that the majority of Trump’s donations come from wealthy elites, companies, and political action committees. These wealthy donors are the same people who will benefit from the recent tax bill that was passed by Congress -- a bill that was passed with wealthy donors in mind. Senator Lindsey Graham warned Congress that if the tax bill didn’t pass, the “financial contributions will stop.” Shortly after the passage of the tax bill, Trump scheduled three fundraising events, including “high-dollar” fundraisers around the holidays.
It’s not just about taxes. In 2017, the telecommunications industry spent over $110 million lobbying Congress and the FCC to eliminate net neutrality. Industry giants like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T (and their executives) also contributed millions to Congressional members’ campaigns from both political parties. While 83% of people support net neutrality, the FCC overturned precedent, against public will, and got rid of net neutrality protections. Despite clear public support for net neutrality, Congress is unlikely to overturn the FCC decision.
But this isn’t just about one president, or one party. The influence of money in politics affectsDemocrats and Republicans alike – almost all elected officials receive big dollar donations from, and are influenced by, corporations, unions, and wealthy elites. For example, a report issued by Free Speech For People documents how contributions from private prison companies and prison guard unions appear to influence the policies of Jerry Brown, the Democratic governor of California. Since the problem crosses party lines, so must the solution.
Today, thevast majority of people from both the left and right agree that the wealthy few have too much power in our democracy. Rather than stay silent and wait for the Supreme Court to change its mind, people are fighting for political equality - people are fighting, that is, for the idea that everyone should have an equal say at all levels of the political system.
Another anniversary this week helps point a way forward. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which effectively overruled Supreme Court precedent and abolished poll taxes in federal elections, was ratified on January 23, 1964. (Two years later, on January 25, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, a case that ultimately declared poll taxes unconstitutional in state elections as well.) A constitutional amendment worked for ending one type of wealth-based barrier to political participation (poll taxes), and it can work to end Citizens United.
This election year, voters in Massachusetts will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot question that take strides towards overturning Citizens United. If successful, it will create the Nation’s first “Citizens Commission” to help ensure that the state legislatures (which are ultimately charged with ratifying proposed constitutional amendments) and congressional delegations (which can help pass an amendment through Congress) are responsive to the voters’ will on this issue. This ballot question can be a model for other states to replicate in 2020. Success with these ballot questions will demonstrate how important money in politics is to constituents, raise general awareness of the issues surrounding big money in politics, and provide an extra layer of political accountability. The momentum gained from this movement will also lead to a quicker passage of other laws that promote equity, justice, and fairness for all.
Our nation’s history shows that when the people engage, amendments can and will pass. Nineteen states have already joined this movement in passing resolutions to overturn Citizens United, and more states will be joining with every election. Overturning Citizens United will not end the fight for democracy, but it will expand the definition of democracy and allow for more conversations on how to move toward a country that works for everyone.