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Why Campaign Finance Reform Is the First Issue That We Must Address

Surely we can agree that our country should no longer be bought and sold by moneyed interests at the expense of everyone else.

(Photo: takomabibelot/Flickr)

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President Obama punctuated his State of the Union with a repeated refrain: “Surely we can agree.” With that mantra, he reminded us of our basic, universally shared values, foremost among them the inherent worth of every American life and the importance of giving all citizens a chance to succeed.

When the president enumerated what these values mean in practice – calling for child care, sick leave, equal pay, lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage – it was safe to assume the American public was nodding along. Indeed, a new poll released today by the Make It Work campaign, an advocacy group, finds that the vast majority of likely 2016 voters strongly support reforms like the ones Obama outlined.

“These ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families,” Obama said. “That is a fact. And that’s what all of us – Republicans and Democrats alike – were sent here to do.”

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

But while ordinary citizens overwhelmingly want tax breaks for the middle class, better wages and mandatory sick leave, many politicians are not interested in passing these reforms – because the super-wealthy individuals and powerful special interests funding our elections do not. This explains why Senate Republicans blocked the Fair Minimum Wage Act last year and have defeated the Paycheck Fairness Act four times since 2013.

The sad truth is this: Politicians of all stripes are beholden to their donors, not the American public. And as long as special interest groups and extremely wealthy individuals continue to bankroll campaigns, they’ll be the only ones getting what they want.

Nonetheless, some continue to fight for change. Today, exactly five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave outside interest groups unlimited ability to fund-raise and influence elections, legislators reintroduced a “Defending Democracy” package of campaign finance reforms.

These bills and amendments are “about restoring confidence in our democracy and ending this unfettered spending by anonymous donors that overwhelms the rights of individual Americans to be heard,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) in a press release.

The package, which has the support of at least 29 reform groups, includes the following proposed bills:

The Empowering Citizens Act reforms the presidential public financing system, creates a congressional public financing system, shuts down individual-candidate super PACs and prohibits coordination between candidates and outside spending groups. Sponsors: Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

The DISCLOSE Act closes dark-money loopholes by requiring groups that spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures to file disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission. Sponsors: Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The Democracy for All Amendment provides Congress and individual states with the authority to regulate campaign finance and distinguish between people and artificial entities. Key sponsors: Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

The Real-Time Transparency Act requires all political committees to disclose contributions of $1,000 or more. Sponsors: Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).

The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act requires nonprofit organizations making campaign expenditures to disclose donors of $5,000 or more. Sponsor: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

The Shareholder Protection Act requires corporations to disclose election-related spending to shareholders and the public, even if the money goes indirectly through a third party. Sponsors: Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Capuano (D-MA).

Five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision we’ve witnessed the most expensive elections ever, the rise of dark money and more than $1 billion in unlimited contributions into federal elections through super PACs.

To be sure, this reintroduced package of legislative remedies stands an infinitesimal chance of passage in the new GOP-led Congress. But there is value in keeping these common-sense reforms on the front burner, to reinforce where both parties stand on the most vital issue of our time for our democracy. Surely we can agree that our country should no longer be bought and sold by America’s moneyed interests at the expense of everyone else.