Have House Democrats Given Up on Overturning Citizens United?
Fresh off of winning an historic election to take back the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi lead a group of House Democrats in announcing today that the first piece of legislation introduced in the House (H R 1) will be an omnibus package of reforms aimed at making elections fairer in America.
The package includes a long list of common-sense ideas such as striking down unnecessary barriers to voter participation though steps such as automatic voter registration and require that all votes be case on paper ballots. Many states have already proven these ideas work. There are important ethics reforms too, such as requiring presidential candidates to make their tax returns public and applying a code of conduct to Supreme Court justices.
So far, so good.
But in their 30-minute press conference unveiling the idea, not a single Democratic member of Congress addressed the need to reverse Supreme Court rulings that have eviscerated past campaign finance laws by equating campaign spending with free speech and granting corporations the same constitutional rights as real people. The speakers spewed wonderful, focus-grouped phrases about ending corruption, but unless they are willing to reverse Citizens United and similar court rulings, they won't succeed.
The package will reportedly contain some campaign finance measures such as improving disclosure of precisely which billionaires are buying our elections at any given moment. Further, it will increase the roll of small donors, giving some grassroots candidates a fighting chance to stand up to corporate candidates. But overall, the bill will lead to more money in politics, not less. Given current court dogma, there really is no way to get "big" money out of politics, so adding more "little" money may be a helpful short-term remedy.
Leadership around a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United has traditionally come from the Senate, not the House. Western senators like Tom Udall and Jon Tester have introduced their own amendments, as has Bernie Sanders. But with Mitch McConnell still firmly in control of the Senate, pro-democracy activists are right to look now to the House for leadership.
It's admirable for Democrats to put democratic reform on the top of their agenda. Introducing an omnibus bill is a bold way to do that, and its normal that it would not include a constitutional amendment, which moves through Congress as a separate vehicle than normal legislation. Some reform groups and early press accounts report that the bill will include language urging passage of a constitutional amendment. That's good, but not an adequate substitute for holding a vote on an actual amendment as well and not an excuse to make no mention of the elephant in the campaign finance reform room at a seminal press conference on campaign reform.
To pretend that using this "once in a lifetime" moment to pass legislation without correcting the errors of a runaway court is not the leadership we need. Further, it sends a signal to the Roberts Court that Congress will acquiesce to their judicial activism, rather than checking and balancing a branch that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump are working to stack with ideologues for a generation to come.