If you think that big money is poisoning the well of American politics, you should support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and many other politicians of both parties who want to nullify or overturn the Supreme Court's toxic Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to unlimited campaign contributions from special interest groups, including corporations and labor unions.
Just to refresh your memory, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. In other words, corporations and labor unions are people too. Go figure!
"Citizens United is a terrible decision that overturns decades of law and gives corporations and special interests unprecedented new power to influence elections," Sen. Reid told me in a recent e-mail exchange. "I am in favor of passing the DISCLOSE Act, which would bring greater transparency to our elections by requiring shadow organizations to reveal their secret donors." So far so good, but it's also important to apply these same requirements to labor unions, including public employee unions.
The horrible effects of the Citizens United decision are on vivid display in the Republican presidential primaries, where billionaires are using so-called Super PACs to funnel millions of dollars to their favorite candidates, and to trash opposing candidates. And just wait until the general election campaign, when pro-Obama Super PACs will dump hundreds of millions of dollars into his campaign. In fact, some political observers expect the president to conduct a billion-dollar re-election campaign. That should concern everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike.
So what can Congress do to nullify or overturn Citizens United? A revised version of the aforementioned DISCLOSE Act sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) would require unions, corporations, Super PACs and other organizations that spend $10,000 or more on political campaigns to disclose their donors to the Federal Elections Commission in a timely fashion rather than waiting until after the election to disclose their donors. That seems like a good start.
"In an election year, it might seem naïve to expect Congress to approve more transparency in political spending," the Los Angeles Times opined in a recent editorial, "but would-be opponents of the DISCLOSE Act need to be reminded that even the Supreme Court that gave us Citizens United emphasized the importance of disclosure."
Although most of the media attention has been on Republican Super PACs, President Obama is already outspending his GOP rivals by millions of dollars. According to the Associated Press, the Obama campaign had spent more than $135 million through February, about $3 million more than all of his Republican rivals combined. Moreover, Obama has spent more than $7 million on fundraising activities since January, and labor unions, which spent $400 million to elect Obama in 2008, will contribute much more this year.
Obama's largest single 2008 donor was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which contributed $87.5 million and has pledged $100 million for the 2012 campaign. On and on it goes. That's why so many of us are cynical about American politics.
• Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal's senior political columnist.