By Larry Cohen and Michael Brune In Stuart Rothenberg’s recent column, "'Big Money' and the 2016 Elections" (Roll Call, April 23, 2015), his inside-the-Beltway perspective blinded him to the fact millions of people across the country are fed up with the current political system, the state of campaign finance and the growing role big money plays in national, state and local elections.
Gallup Polling this year cited government dysfunction as the top issue for Americans. Fully 92 percent of Americans agree it is important for our elected leaders to do something about the influence of money in politics, according to a 2013 MFour and Tulchin Research poll. Those numbers don’t lie — and they are being matched with action in states across the country.
At the Sierra Club and the Communications Workers of America, our millions of members and supporters are fired up because they see the damage that big money does to our political system every day. They are demanding elected officials put people first and fight for a healthy environment, strong labor protections and an end to the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on our government. A democratic government should respond to voters rather than to corporate and special interests pursuing profits at the expense of workers and the health of families and our communities.
In the post-Citizens United era, the incredible amount of cash required to run campaigns means elected officials spend most of their time fundraising rather than listening to voters, while special interests spend ever-greater sums to drown out everyone else. Only a commonsense overhaul of how our elections are financed can change this dynamic.
Voters know this. And Americans care enough about it that they are doing something, even when politicians drag their feet. In Tallahassee, Fla., 67 percent of voters overwhelmingly supported a sweeping set of ethics laws, lower campaign contribution limits to curb influence peddling, and a voucher program to empower small donors. Other communities in Massachusetts, Illinois and New Jersey have passed similar resolutions. Ballot initiatives are also in the works in Maine, Seattle and Chicago.
The grassroots action to get big corporate money out of politics doesn’t stop there. The U.S. Senate has heard from more than 5 million petition signers, 16 states, and 650 municipalities demanding action to regulate campaign finance and overturn Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. Last September, such an amendment received the most votes ever for an amendment on campaign finance in its first Senate vote.
In Richmond, Calif., Chevron’s blatant attempt to buy a city council election was rejected by voters after a massive grassroots organizing and education drive. Chevron — pushing to elect candidates who would let their local refinery pollute with impunity — had spent $3 million on city council races, equating to about $72 per registered voter.
The fight to shine a light on big corporate political dollars is also advancing. Just this month, more than 650,000 people called on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order to require those companies getting taxpayer dollars through federal contracts to disclose their political contributions. On a single day, people made more than 6,000 phone calls, one every five seconds, to the White House and participated in more than 60 rallies in 30 states in favor of an executive order. Meanwhile, nearly 1.2 million comments have been submitted to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue a rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose the political dollars they spend on behalf of investors.
Collectively representing more than 3 million people, the Communications Workers of America and the Sierra Club hear from our members every day that something must be done to fix our broken political system. Solutions to reduce the influence of money in elections are already helping to put voters back in the driver’s seat in states and communities around the nation.
What we're seeing is a bona fide movement that is sweeping the country and pushing elected leaders to ensure that all Americans have a voice in our democracy. This includes Sierra Club members in Maine working to strengthen the Clean Elections system and CWA members in in New York State working to pass legislation for public financing of campaigns.
From inside the Beltway, where corporate dollars still rule the roost, it might not seem like big money is a big deal. But everywhere else, Americans are fed up and fighting back. Pundits and politicians alike better start paying attention.
Larry Cohen is the president of the Communications Workers of America; Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. They are co-founders of the Democracy Initiative. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.