Clements is the president of American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to allow more federal and state regulation of money in politics. He was previously an assistant Massachusetts attorney general.
A federal grand jury has indicted the Republican speaker of the Ohio House in a $60 million bribery scheme. Meanwhile in Illinois, the Democratic speaker of the House has been implicated in a multimillion-dollar pay-to-play corruption scheme. Different parties, same game.
This latest Midwest swamp fest has all the features of American campaigns today: super PACs funded by a few corporate interests; dark money front groups; politicians strong-arming business people who need legislation; legislators who don't "go along" getting pushed aside; a revolving door between politicians and lobbyists; false attack ads and propaganda; crony capitalism; and utter contempt for the voters and taxpayers who get stuck with the bill.
In 2016, electric utility company First Energy had two failing nuclear power plants in Ohio. Company executives considered what they called a "legislative solution" — what the rest of us would call a "bailout."
Meanwhile, Householder wanted to make a comeback from an earlier scandal and reclaim the gavel he'd wielded in Columbus two decades earlier. In January 2017 he visited with First Energy. After a trip on the company's private jet, the deal was done.
Householder, his aides and lobbyists set up Generation Now, a tax-exempt organization (under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code) "to promote energy independence and economic development."
First Energy began making millions of dollars in "contributions" to Generation Now — and it started funding the campaigns of Householder and the legislators who then gave him the votes to be House speaker again.
Householder then introduced a bill to have Ohio ratepayers send an additional $1.3 billion to First Energy, keeping the nuclear plants open. In the face of balking legislators, First Energy ran millions of dollars more through Generation Now for "pressure campaigns" against wavering legislators. It worked: The bailout passed in two months.
Outraged and unhappy voters in Ohio responded by collecting 265,000 signatures to force a ballot referendum to repeal the bailout. At which point Generation Now and other front groups funneled $38 million from First Energy into misleading ads and tactics — defeating the ballot measure and keeping the bailout.
The bottom line: First Energy successfully turned a $60 million investment in campaigns into $1.3 billion in assured revenue at Ohians' expense.
In many ways, it's just another normal tale about the sway cash has over politics in recent decades, since the Supreme Court struck down multiple state and federal campaign finance laws using a new theory of money as speech protected by the First Amendment.
What is most surprising, perhaps, is that any investigation or indictments happened at all. It's true Householder and his allies got sloppy and greedy. They used some of the money for personal gain. They failed to comply with farcical non-coordination rules that magically transform dark money into "independent" free speech. So the indictments may well be rock-solid.
But this humiliation of American democracy in Ohio has all of the everyday features of our broken political system.
When reporters and analysts pressed the utility about the alleged bribery scheme, a "perturbed" CEO Chuck Jones insisted that the company acted "ethically." Complaining about the tone of the questions, Jones said, "It would be really nice if we get to actually talk about the great quarter we had."
In a sense, you can't blame him. Using a multimillion-dollar political spending scheme to secure subsidies, tax breaks and competitive advantage is common practice. It is not corruption or undue influence — it is "free speech." Using a "general welfare" nonprofit to hide the source of the money is not evasion of contribution limits — it is an "independent expenditure." A shake-down from, or a privileged back-door to, the speaker of the House is not corruption — it is "ingratiation" and "access."
Or so says the Supreme Court in decisions such as, most famously, Citizens United v. FEC a decade ago. That's why billions of dollars from corporations, unions, and extremely wealthy people flow into campaigns using the same mechanisms that were used in Ohio.
In the face of this systemic corruption, signs of reform and renewal are growing rapidly. Last year Americans named political corruption the No. 1 crisis facing our nation.
Millions across partisan lines have voted for a constitutional amendment to end unlimited election spending and secure free speech and representation for all. Other nonpartisan reforms such as ranked-choice voting, and end to partisan gerrymandering and full disclosure are gaining ground to put voters first.
This summer, a panel convened by the 200-year-old American Academy of Arts and Sciences completed a two-year study and 50 town halls with Americans around the nation. Its report, "Our Common Purpose," cites the "urgent threat to our democratic way of life" — and provides a detailed agenda for renewing the system by July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The indictments and investigations in Ohio and Illinois may well send a few people to jail. The question is whether the rest of us can muster the national will to fix the crime that is killing our national promise of equal rights, representation and government of we, the people.
- A constitutional curb on campaign finance? - The Fulcrum ›
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Clements is president of American Promise, which seeks to limit the power of corporate, union, political party and super PAC money in politics.
Faith in our political system is at an all-time low. In a recent poll, a record 89 percent of respondents said they view the government as being run by a few big interests looking out for themselves instead of "for the benefit of all the people." (The figure was at 64 percent a decade ago.) By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Americans believe their "vote does not matter because of the influence that wealthy individuals and big corporations have on the electoral process." And 90 percent agree that elected officials are more interested in appealing to campaign donors than addressing the common good.
Americans are right to believe their interests aren't represented in political outcomes. Research shows economic elites and corporations have a dominant impact on policy, but most citizens have virtually no impact. As money from concentrated factions pours into elections in record amounts, voter turnout remains low, as does satisfaction with candidates, elected officials and the direction of the country generally.
While these issues are critical to our nation, options for legislative solutions are limited in light of Supreme Court decisions that have construed the First Amendment's freedom of speech clause as allowing unlimited spending by corporations, unions and individuals with the financial means to influence elections. Today, whether the spender is Apple (estimated 2018 revenue, $273 billion), its CEO (2018 pay, $120 million), or Jane Smith (annual pay before taxes, $45,000), each "voice" is free to "speak" to voters and candidates by spending money.
Amid mounting concerns about systemic corruption, unequal representation, and undue control of elections and policymaking by powerful wealthy interests, Americans of every political persuasion seek a solution to help ensure political equality for all citizens. Polls and ballot initiatives consistently show extraordinary support among Americans – exceeding 75 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents — for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution to empower Congress and the states to regulate money in elections, combat corruption, revise how constitutional rights apply to corporations and secure equal representation.
Millions of Americans have petitioned states and Congress on this issue, and 19 states and more than 800 cities, counties and towns have formally enacted resolutions in support. In Congress, 43 senators and 151 House members are co-sponsors of amendment proposals. The 28th Amendment would significantly improve the effectiveness and fairness of participation and representation for Americans in political campaigns and elections, combat systemic corruption, and increase the responsiveness and resiliency of self-government.
History of Amendments and Campaign Finance Regulation
American democracy is a story of constitutional amendments. Due to generations of Americans exercising the Constitution's amendment power, the foundation of our republic rests on:
- the Bill of Rights;
- a ban on slavery;
- expanded voting rights, regardless of race, gender or age over 18;
- due process and equal protection of the laws;
- election of senators by the people;
- a two-term limit for presidents, and a process for removing an incapacitated president;
- elimination of poll taxes as an economic barrier to voting.
In the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974, amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act were passed into law. They required disclosure of campaign contributions; imposed expenditure limits for individuals and groups; set spending limits for campaigns, candidates and groups; implemented a public funding system for presidential campaigns; and created the Federal Election Commission to oversee and enforce the new rules.
Soon after FECA became law, a number of candidates, organizations and individuals challenged its constitutionality, arguing that limits on contributions violated freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Ruling on FECA, in 1976 the Supreme Court first applied the First Amendment to any election spending limit, launching a judicial battle that spanned the next 30-plus years (Buckley v. Valeo in 1975, Belotti in 1978, Austin in 1990 and McConnell v. FEC in 2002) and culminated in the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision.
That case centered on "Hillary: The Movie," an infomercial that portrayed Hillary Clinton as corrupt and unfit for office, produced in anticipation of the 2008 presidential race by the nonprofit corporation Citizens United. It triggered the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act by seeking contributions from for-profit corporations to advocate voting against her within 30 days of the primary elections.
Citizens United filed a lawsuit against the FEC, arguing that compliance with BCRA violated its First Amendment rights, and the case reached the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court "rejected the premise that the Government has an interest 'in equalizing the relative ability of individuals and groups to influence the outcome of elections.'"
Two aspects of the Citizens United decision are particularly controversial.
- Corporations are "speakers": Limited liability, perpetual life and concentration of capital give corporations significant economic power that could be leveraged into political power. Corporations also have large economic stakes in politics as decisions can have multibillion-dollar impacts. This combination of economic power and high political stakes makes it important to consider how corporations may influence the outcome of elections and the political process. In Citizens United, the Court glossed over the reality of the corporate structure, abandoning common-sense distinctions between corporations and people.
- Quid pro quo is the only corruption of concern: Previous court rulings maintained that the anti-corruption interest that warranted election spending rules did not merely apply to quid pro quo (bribery) corruption, but also systemic corruption, where major donors obtain substantial influence over political decision-making. Citizens United ended this. The court asserted (with no factual basis) that "[t]he appearance of influence or access ... will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy." Today studies prove this assertion false.
An Amendment to Correct Course
The premise of American political theory is that government is a creation of people who are free and equal to each other. Holding equality as a self-evident truth does not make it so – then or now – but the promise of equality has always been the central feature of American political and constitutional theory.
If Americans are equal citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, our political system would have certain features: Each vote would be equal – one person, one vote – regardless of wealth; elected officials would be more responsive to voters than to donors; and the marketplace of ideas would be open to all citizens and their views, without requiring acceptance by a concentrated wealthy class.
After 40 years of Supreme Court hostility to political equality, our political system instead has the characteristics of an oligarchy. The 2018 midterm election cost more than $5 billion, the most expensive in history. Most of this money comes from less than half of 1 percent of Americans. And between 2010 and 2016, three groups – the Republican Governors Association, the Democratic Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – spent well over $2 billion to influence elections; these groups' largest donors are global corporations.
Contributions to state campaigns have increased from $1.37 billion in 2000 to over $3.2 billion in 2012. As with federal spending, most of the money comes from few donors – and often donors from outside the state, including corporations with business interests in the state. In California in 2016, pharmaceutical corporations spent $86 million – 90 percent of the total money in the campaign – to defeat a drug-price initiative. The next year, pharmaceutical corporations spent $59 million to defeat a nearly identical initiative in Ohio.
In our dysfunctional system, money is not just speech – it is representation. Data shows that because money reigns, most Americans cannot participate meaningfully in determining candidates and election results. Wealthy Americans and corporate interests hold wildly disproportionate influence, and they typically have different policy preferences than most Americans. With political decisions (or indecision) about energy and the global climate crisis, public health, food and water systems, war and peace, and more, this can literally be a matter of life or death for Americans who lack the power of wealth and influence.
It does not have to be this way. The 28th Amendment advanced by American Promise works against creation of election systems that significantly favor those with great wealth – it asserts that the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans, not just the wealthy few. With the 28th Amendment, we will have more views and more speech from more Americans; more effective, responsive and truly representative government; more empowerment of more voters; more responsible, equal citizenship; and more hope and faith in democracy as an effective form of government.