The staggering amount of money in contemporary politics has frustrated voters and created a climate of disparity for concerned citizens hoping to influence legislation. The 2010 Citizens United decision from the U.S. Supreme Court is at the focal point of the current controversy on a national level.
The League of Women Voters of Concord-Carlisle, a non-partisan, issues oriented organization of women and men of all ages and backgrounds, hosted Pushing Back on Money Politics, 2012, moderated by Tom Ashbrook, host of NRP’s On Point with a panel of experts at the auditorium on Thursday evening to discuss the issue of big spending in the 2012 elections.
The panel consisted of Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership, Harvard Law School, and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, Jeff Clements, attorney and author of Corporations Are Not People, and Mimi Marziani, Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.
“We are up against some seriously difficult dynamics,” Ashbrook told the audience, “We know something isn’t right and that the power of money is corrupting the politics of our republic. But the big question remains: What can be done?”
Professor Lawrence Lessig presented a lecture on institutional corruption in Congress. “This corruption is not illegal,” Lessig said. “There is nothing criminal about the institutional corruption or dependent corruption in Congress today. Our framers gave us a Republic by which they meant a representative Democracy, with the house of government dependent on the people alone. Congress no longer depends on people, but increasingly on the funders.”
Lessig told the packed auditorium that members of Congress spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money to get back to Congress. He cited a quote from Virginia Congresswomen, Leslie Byrne, who said that when she reached Congress, a colleague said, “Always lean towards the green. He was not an environmentalist.”
Lessig then dissected the difference between “The People” and “The Funders:” Lessig said that 196 individual Americans are responsible for 80 percent of the money in the Super PACS in 2011.
“The tiniest slice of the population fund the vast majority of campaigns in this country. This is corruption relative to the framer’s baseline,” Lessig said. “Americans believe that money buys results in Congress. That belief erodes the trust we have in the in the institutions. There were a higher percentage of Americans who believed in the British Crown at the time of the Revolution than who believe in the Congress today.” With the erosion of trust comes a drop off in voter participation, thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy in futility.
Lessig and his group, Rootstrikers, propose we clean up politics by providing that public elections are publicly funded, limiting independent political expenditure and making them transparent and by reaffirming that when the Declaration of Independence spoke of entities “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights,” it was speaking of natural persons only. He quoted Ben Franklin, who described the constructs of this country as “a Republic if you can keep it.”
Mimi Marziani spoke next, discussing how the feeling of powerlessness amongst individuals has contributed to a lack of voting and that even the well-educated members of our society do not understand the political systems we abide in, creating the contemporary climate of political divisiveness nation wide.
“There is no silver bullet to fix these problems,” Marziani said. “The issue of transparency in campaign finance is the first step in improvements. There needs to be a system that ensures that Super PACs truly are independent from candidates and the system must encourage small donor public finances. And finally, the system must facilitate easier voting, and voter registration. This needs to be less of a burden on potential voters.“
Jeff Clements, a Concord resident, attorney and author of Corporations Are Not People pushed for a Constitutional Amendment to over turn Citizens United.
“This is the method we use to fix things when the Supreme Court goes off the rails," he said. "The Supreme Court ruled that women couldn’t vote. They ruled that blacks essentially are not citizens and should not be held to the same standards as whites. They ruled that we couldn’t have progressive income tax. All of these were over ruled by the people through the Constitutional Amendment process, which needs a two-thirds vote in congress and a three-fourths vote from the states.”
When the lectures and speeches gave way to open forum and frustration was at the forefront of the questions from the audience. One audience member said, ”I feel like a lot of politicians are behaving like prostitutes these days.” In the midst of a semi-awkward silence, Tom Ashbrook retorted, “Let’s not be insulting to prostitutes now.” This received a roar of laughter and the conversation resumed with questions on how to move forward.
Afterward, there was a book signing and a gathering in the CCHS cafeteria.
“We had a great panel tonight,” Ashbrook said. “You really could feel the intensity and passion in the room.”