#WeThePeople Democracy Reform Bills Target Big Money in US Politics

Posted June 15, 2016

MP3 Interview with Rachel Curley, democracy associate with Public Citizen's Congress Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

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Last April, a coalition of more than 260 advocacy groups supported a series of protest and civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C. called Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening. These activists demanded the overturning of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates of unlimited and unaccountable money in U.S. political campaigns, reforms to end the corrupting influence of big money in politics and free & fair elections that give every American an equal voice.

The enthusiastic public support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign message, denouncing the unchecked influence of a small group of billionaires on U.S. politics, reflects public opinion polls where large numbers of Americans express the belief that our democracy is broken.

As the 2016 presidential and congressional election campaign swings into high gear, political spending is predicted to break the previous record of $6.3 billion spent in 2012. On June 9, Democrats in the U.S. Senate seeking to address growing public concern, announced a new package of proposed legislation that they say is designed to “hold the government more accountable, amend the Constitution to end unlimited campaign contributions and reform the lobbying laws to limit special interest influence on elected officials.” Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Rachel Curley, democracy associate with Public Citizen's Congress Watch, who summarizes the set of bills being proposed in the Senate known as #WeThePeople democracy reforms. (Rush transcript)

RACHEL CURLEY: I think the impetus for the action in the Senate really came from the awareness in our country at how fed up people are at the present, of special interests in our democracy. Polling shows us that 85 percent of Americans think that the way we fund campaigns needs to be changed. That's a really high number. That's what tons of people understand, that corporations have more say than we do in our elections and they are tired of that. Tired of seeing that happen, time and time again. And so I think the Democrats in the Senate see that people are deeply by this issue and they want to see change, and so they are taking a stand and putting forth legislation that could make these changes.

There are a lot of things in this package but I will try to summarize them. One section of it covers transparency and disclosure, so making the donations that come to candidates and their campaigns, clear and transparent, so we know where they're coming from. Since some of that is mandatory disclosure of campaign donations, some of it is requiring candidates for federal office to report major contributions within 48 hours. So right now, reporting is not really happening in real time. And if it happened more in real time, that would increase transparency around who is spending in our elections. And another piece of it is reining in these superPACs that are also collecting huge amounts of money for campaigns. So that's one piece of it. Like I said, disclosure and transparency.

Another is affecting laws around lobbying. More folks know what lobbyists are – they go to Congress and talk about specific issues that affect their clients. And there are rules around lobbying right now. You do have to be registered, but the Senate Democrats want to go further. One of the things that they want to do is to enact a ban on former members of Congress becoming lobbyists. So once you've left Congress, either the House or the Senate, you're no longer allowed to come back and lobby for something.

The one other thing I'll mention is that this does include a Constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen's United, which was the case that opened the floodgates for corporate spending in elections.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there a realistic possibility that Congress could pass some of this legislation, or is this going to be used in a way to keep politicians accountable when they are up for re-election this November?

RACHEL CURLEY: The legislation is bipartisan, so it shows that there is broad support for these issues. And I think what's important to note is that Big Money in politics is a problem for everyday voters of both political parties, so regardless of political affiliation, wealthy special interests look out for their own interests and not those of everyday Americans. And so I think the success of this proposal is to continually pound the drumbeat that Americans are tired of the system being rigged against them and they looking for change, and that legislators should support this change.

I know sometimes the issue of money in politics can feel frustrating, but this is an excellent opportunity to call your legislator, there is a package of reforms. It's called the "We the People Act" and I would like you to support it, and I would like you to make this happen. So this is a good moment for folks to continue to make noise on this issue.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Rachel, I'll just end on this question here. Many people across the country are pretty cynical about politics and about the role of Big Money. Wall Street money. Pharmaceutical money. Health insurance company money. All that seems to be calling the shots in Washington when it comes to important policy decisions. What, if anything gives you optimism that there's a change of mood in the country, or maybe on Capitol Hill, too, that gives this legislation a fighting chance?

RACHEL CURLEY: I have always been an optimistic person, but I came to Washington anyway, and I love working here because I can see that there are solutions. And even though it seems like an insurmountable problem, this piece of legislation is one piece in a large puzzle of solutions that can happen. Our democracy can be restored. The balance can sort of be reset, and we can have a democracy that is reflective of what our communities actually look like.

And so, I think that what I'll say is that a lot of folks may not think that there are solutions and it does seem like an issue that can't be addressed. But this is one step, the We The People Act. But this is one in a plan of lots of organizations from across the country that are working on. The Democracy Awakening event was just the beginning. I think the movement is growing and I think that the time is now that we can take back our democracy.

For more information on the #WeThePeople democracy reform legislation, visit Public Citizen at citizen.org; citizen.org/congress; and Democracy is for People at democracyisforpeople.org.

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