For those who weren’t quite convinced of money’s corrupting influence on our elections and policymaking, leaked tapes of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressing a Koch Brothers conference full of millionaire and billionaire political donors provide all of the evidence needed. While time will tell what the tape means for McConnell’s re-election campaign, it is undeniable that it shows exactly why we need to change the way we finance our elections.
In the tape, McConnell promises, if Republicans take control of the Senate, to remove from that body’s agenda legislation that would help millions of everyday Americans. It is not a mere coincidence that the big-pocketed donors in the room also oppose action on these bills to raise the minimum wage, ensure unemployment benefits and reduce student loan debt, among other bread & butter issues.
This pandering to wealthy donors isn’t unique to McConnell; it is systemic. Our whole political system is increasingly dependent on a small handful of wealthy individuals and corporations who fund elections. The top 0.01 percent of income earners now contributes more than 40 percent of total spending in elections. And it is this elite class of donors that largely set the policy agenda and determine who can and cannot win elections.
The result is that our public policy ignores the needs and desires of the vast majority of Americans, but instead further enriches these big donors who are already ridiculously wealthy. The wealthy have very different policy priorities than average Americans, and when those priorities conflict, the preferences of billionaire donors trump the preferences of the rest of us. What kind of democracy is this?
Research by Martin Gilens at Princeton University showed that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy … ”
McConnell claims that recent Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United striking down limits on political spending simply “level[ed] the playing field” and created the “most free and open system we’ve had in modern times.” This claim defies logic, the data, and runs opposite to the views of the vast majority of Americans.
Solutions to our money in politics problem, like the constitutional amendment to limit money in elections now in Congress, are widely supported by voters across the political spectrum. A poll in September showed 73 percent of voters support a constitutional amendment and more than two-to-one support a public financing proposal that would match of small campaign donations to give everyday voters greater say in who will run for office and ultimately represent them.
Americans know that a few big donors are drowning out their voices in our democracy, and they’ve had enough. They are ready for solutions to restore a government of, by and for the people where every voice is heard.
More than 3 million petition signatures have been gathered in support of an amendment, and 16 states (including West Virginia) and more than 550 local towns have passed resolutions supporting it.
In September, the U.S. Senate rejected Sen. Tom Udall’s proposed “Democracy for All” Amendment allowing Congress and the states to place reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money in elections. The amendment had 50 Senate cosponsors including West Virginia Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin. A companion bill in the House had 117 cosponsors, none yet from West Virginia.
Since Constitutional Amendments require two-thirds vote for passage, it is rare for an amendment to pass on the first vote. This is a historic vote nonetheless. Americans are galvanized to overturn the Supreme Court decisions such as “Citizens United” and “McCutchen” that have flooded elections with unprecedented amounts of money. And they are going to keep demanding votes on this amendment until it passes, is ratified by 38 states and becomes law of the land.
The leaked McConnell tape sheds even more light on our money in politics problem, but we’ve known about this problem for years. Let’s solve it before the next leak.
Gary Zuckett is executive director of West Virginia Citizen Group.