Campaign finance reform sits at the intersection of our faith values and our democratic ideals. It is not simply a political or public relations dilemma but a moral matter. The temptation to use money to buy unjust favors is an ancient one. Scripture speaks continually about the call to seek justice – particularly for those on the margins of society, those with little voice or power in the public sphere. The prophet Amos thundered against those merchants in Israel who “...sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes… and push the afflicted out of the way…” (Amos 2:6-7) Psalm 15 defines a righteous person as one “who keeps his oath even when it hurts… and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.”
As people of faith, we recognize the responsibility of government to seek justice for all people to build the common good. Justice cannot be achieved unless the rules governing the democratic process are just and fair to all. Central to that process is a citizen’s free vote – not limited by the powers of money, social class and unequal access to the public media.
Money has and probably always will play a role in electoral politics, but what kind of role it plays should be subject to regulations that reflect ethical and democratic values. Most importantly, it is necessary to have policy safeguards in place which ensure that more than just the wealthiest interest groups have a voice in the public sphere.
Rules governing the financing of campaigns have long been a focus of congressional debate; yet meaningful campaign finance reform that would make the electoral process more responsive to and accessible to average voters has long been elusive. Meanwhile, the power of money is shutting out the voice of the average citizen, undercutting trust in the democratic process and causing people to withdraw from the political process. Candidates benefit when they cater to the desires of corporations, wealthy donors and special interests. Rather than pursuing justice, candidates are forced to chase money. It is no wonder that many good candidates choose not to run for office because it is simply too expensive.
Unfortunately, the January 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Citizens United v. FEC decision has rendered the prospect of meaningful campaign finance law that would protect the voices of individual voters even more elusive. Although the case originally dealt with the narrow question of whether the electioneering communications provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act apply to “pay-per-view” movies produced by nonprofit entities, the Court stretched to ask a question that had not been posed to them. Then they answered it, announcing that private businesses – including for-profit corporations – have a right to spend an unlimited – yes, unlimited – amount of money to support or defeat candidates. The decision reversed numerous Supreme Court precedents and toppled dozens of long-standing campaign finance laws at the federal and state level.
To get a sense of the staggering implications of Citizens United, consider the example of Exxon-Mobil, whose political action committee (PAC) raised just under $1 million in the 2008 election cycle from executives and members of its board. In that same year, Exxon-Mobil amassed profits of $85 billion. If the Citizens United Decision had already been law in 2008, and the company spent a modest 10 percent of its profits, they could have spent $8.5 billion to elect candidates friendly to their interests and defeat candidates perceived as opposing their interests. This would have been more than was spent by the Obama campaign, the McCain campaign, every U.S. House and Senate candidate and every state legislative candidate in the country combined. If one single corporation could have this kind of influence, imagine what the entire Fortune 500 could do.
According to Public Citizen, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting democracy, businesses are likely to give considerable sums to front groups who will run attack ads against candidates who challenge corporate interests. In this environment, elected officials and anyone running for office will be under enormous pressure to support corporate interests. As a result, it will be much harder to advance a public interest agenda on any issue involving corporate interests and potential profits – whether the issue is environmental protection, health and safety standards, worker rights or consumer protection.
While Congress can pass some laws to limit the effects of the Citizens United decision, because the case is based on the protections of the First Amendment it can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment.
- You can help bring some public scrutiny to the secretive superPACs buying political advertising after the Citizens United decision. Help us put this information online in time for the next election.