American democracy is in crisis. On critical questions of the day – from economic justice to climate change, from education to war and peace – big money interests dominate our elections and our government, drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens. Five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have hijacked the First Amendment for the wealthy few, endangering the guarantee of an open and unfettered exchange of ideas and undermining the fundamental promise of self-government and political equality for all.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, swept away a century of precedent barring corporate money in our elections, treating corporations as if they were people with political speech rights. Now, the Court has unleashed even more money into our elections.
In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a sharply-divided 5-4 Court erased longstanding limits on the total amount of money that one person can contribute to candidates in federal elections. Prior to this decision, a donor was barred from giving more than $123,000 in the aggregate to federal candidates and parties in any two-year election cycle. Now, that same wealthy individual can contribute more than $3.5 million.
As a result, our democracy has been transformed into a game that only the super-rich can play. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that, of the 310 million people in our country, just 0.4 percent of Americans are making political contributions of $200 or more.
But there is hope. In just four years since the Citizens United ruling, millions of citizens across the country have propelled a growing grassroots movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court and to defend our democracy. Sixteen states have gone on record calling for such an amendment, including Montana and Colorado where roughly 75 percent of the voters in both states supported ballot initiatives in 2012 demanding action. More than 500 cities and towns and more than 160 Members of Congress have also made their support official.
And now, the Senate will soon be taking action. On June 3, 2014, the Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing on a constitutional amendment bill proposed by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., which would end the big money dominance of our politics and restore that basic vision of our republic: government of, by, and for the people. The hearing is the first step toward an historic vote this year on the Senate floor.
In a new book and in recent testimony before the Senate Rules Committee, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has proposed an amendment that is very similar to Sens. Udall and Bennet’s amendment, and its companion bill in the House introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. The amendment would restore the people’s authority, through the Congress and the States, to regulate and limit campaign contributions and spending, effectively overturning Buckley v. Valeo and more recent rulings that have opened the floodgates of money in politics.
We can and we must reclaim our democracy. When the Supreme Court threatens the most cherished principle of our Republic – the fundamental promise of political equality for all – the time has come to overrule the court. Article five of the U.S. Constitution gives us this power: to amend the Constitution when the people deem it necessary.
We have amended the Constitution 27 times before in our nation’s history. Seven of those times to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings. To defend our democracy, we must now do it again.
John Bonifaz is the co-founder and president of Free Speech For People.