Republican Lindsey Graham’s support for a constitutional amendment to limit unregulated and often undisclosed “dark money” in political campaigns didn’t get the same attention that Hillary Clinton’s surprise declaration did last week, but taken together they signal a new awareness among politicians in both parties of just how disgusted American voters are with a government that no longer listens to them, and where moneyed interests too often carry the day.
It’s no accident that Graham, testing the ground for a presidential bid, made his comments in New Hampshire, which is poised to become the 17th state to call on Congress to seek a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The 2010 ruling launched a thousand super PACs, this cycle, a spring 2015 billionaires’ primary as multiple candidates vie for the big bucks.
While there aren’t many Washington Republicans joining Graham’s call for a constitutional amendment, he’s in good company around the country, where large majorities of voters support an amendment to rein in what Citizens United unleashed.
All 54 Senate Democrats in the last Congress supported a Democracy for All amendment; every Republican opposed it, including Graham.
Graham—who is looking to distinguish himself in a crowded primary—is no doubt seeing the same polls Clinton likely factored into her announcement tour.
She included a constitutional amendment in her top four priorities.
Polling by Democracy Corps and pollster Stan Greenberg finds that Americans by an overwhelming margin, 73 to 24 percent, back a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and that includes a 56 percent margin among Independents and a 26 percent margin among Republicans.
Still, advocates of reform didn’t see it coming when Clinton announced her support on her launch tour in Iowa, and they’re fending off questions from skeptics about how hypocritical it is for Clinton to cast herself as a reformer while capitalizing on a system that allows her campaign to amass what could well be over a billion dollars.
It’s more ironic than hypocritical, says Karen Hobert-Flynn, senior vice president at Common Cause. “We’re going to need real reform from people participating in the system that isn’t working, but activists are going to want to see more than speeches.”
The current administration has talked a lot about the problem of money in politics, but has done little to change it.
Obama stood in the House chamber to deliver his State of the Union address the day after the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United decision in January 2010.
His anger was palpable, though he spoke, he said, “with all due deference to separation of powers” when he assailed the justices seated before him for having “reversed a century of law” that he believed “will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections…. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.”
Cameras caught Justice Alito mouthing “not true,” and fact-checkers said Obama exaggerated the potential for foreign influence.
But in the five years since that memorable scene, Obama’s fears have been borne out, yet he hasn’t done much beyond giving lip service to his objections.
Activists were disappointed that he didn’t use this year’s State of the Union address to announce that he would sign an executive order to end dark money in federal contracting, using his executive powers to require federal contractors to reveal their contributions. It would be mostly prophylactic, that knowing they are required to report they would clean up their act.
Just in the last month, Common Cause submitted 550,000 signatures to the White House asking for the executive order. An inquiry by The Daily Beast produced this response: “No updates on a potential EO, but we’ve said in the past we support a constitutional amendment as well.”
It’s not clear what Obama is waiting for. There doesn’t appear to be any downside to his taking this minimal step. Amending the Constitution remains far out of reach, as it requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, plus ratification by three-quarters of the states.
In the absence of anything more than speeches, voters are understandably cynical about the prospects for reform. “He mentions it, but there’s no strong push,” says Hobert-Flynn.
After all, if Clinton and Obama were truly serious about the insidious role of money, wouldn’t they be setting an example instead of setting new records for raising money?
Clinton’s answer to that is she’s playing by the rules that exist in order to have the power to change them. The problem with that sentence is it’s the same response Obama has given, and if he leaves office without doing anything to confront Citizens United beyond an occasional rhetorical swipe, he becomes part of the problem. In the peculiar way politics works, perhaps Clinton’s surprise embrace of a constitutional amendment will jolt the White House to get in on the action. There’s no stopping the 2016 money chase except maybe voter disgust.