How to Make Our Democracy Work for Everyone | Commentary

Posted January 21, 2015 at 6:36pm

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission. Rather than lamenting the verdict by cataloguing its considerable damage to American elections, we prefer to focus on two things: The erosion of democracy that happens in between elections, and feasible solutions to restore, as the Declaration of Independence asserts, “the consent of the governed.”

In between election days, money has two pernicious effects on the governing process.

First, it stands in the way of legislating sensible, comprehensive solutions to nearly every issue that ordinary Americans care about.

From deficit-reduction to energy and climate, public health to tax reform, bold policies and big ideas don’t stand a chance under the onslaught of political money.

We all pay a personal price for this terribly broken political system. Whether it’s a husband’s job shipped overseas, a woman faced with shuttering her small business, a new graduate struggling with loan payments, or a child suffering from chronic asthma, we pay for the ways in which well-financed interests are able to bend legislation to their benefit or block good policy ideas at the starting gate.

The other thing that happens in between elections, of course, is fundraising. Much more than any of us ever had to do, and we have nine Senate elections (and a couple of presidential campaigns) between us.

The current crush of fundraising is not only repelling incredibly qualified people from running for office but it’s also driving away some our finest public servants. Read the farewell speeches and comments from many of them — Republicans and Democrats alike — who couldn’t stand the thought of spending dozens of hours a week, year after year, dialing and pleading for dollars (often from the very interests their congressional committees oversee).

That isn’t democracy — and the voters know it. Polls show that majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents believe special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign contributors have the most influence on Congress.

Polls also show that vast majorities doubt our broken system can ever be fixed.

We can overcome that skepticism by putting forth a slate of compelling solutions — ones we can enact right now, even with the existing the Supreme Court. Here are some basic principles that should inform such solutions.

Because everyone has the right to know who is trying to influence our views and buy elections, we need full transparency and immediate disclosure of all political spending.

When everyone participates in campaigns through programs that empower small donors, we’ll restore faith and increase participation in our system by bringing the attention of elected officials back to their constituents. Instead of more big-dollar corporate donors, we need a system that runs on individual participants. Public financing, for example, is already playing a role in important state and local elections. This year, voters elected nearly 300 candidates who ran using clean election programs in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine.

Ending political conflicts of interest, the dialing-for-dollars fundraising mentality and the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street means that everyone plays by the same common-sense rules. And when enforcement of election laws is swift and certain, everyone will be held accountable for breaking the rules.

Finally, we hope the Supreme Court will return to the understanding of money in politics it had for the last century. Citizens United should be seen as an aberration, not a new American standard. But in the future, if it seems as if Citizens United will remain, then our only option would be to push for a constitutional amendment to ensure that everyone has a voice.

The public must mobilize as never before to ensure that solutions become realities. Such mobilization must include people of all political stripes in order for it to work. Ending the tyranny of big money corruption isn’t partisan — it’s patriotic. It’s essential to preserving the most deeply held values and beliefs we share.

This is a critical moment. The public has now seen what three election cycles in the post-Citizens United environment are like, and they’re ready to focus on ways to undo the damage. Our genius as a society is to adapt with the times, learn from past mistakes and continue to push the republic forward.

We surely don’t want to be authoring an article similar to this one five or 10 years from now. Instead, we hope to be able to look back and see the era of big money corruption in the rear-view mirror, slipping farther and farther away from sight.

Alan Simpson is a former republican senator from Wyoming; Bill Bradley is a former Democratic senator from New Jersey; Bob Kerry is a former democratic senator from Nebraska. They are co-chairmen of Issue One, an organization working to bring new resources, strategic vision and bipartisan leadership to the fight against money in politics.