My Turn: The conservative role in passing an anti-corruption amendment

For the Monitor
Published: 1/25/2020 6:15:21 AM
Modified: 1/25/2020 6:15:10 AM

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision has unleashed a campaign money system dominated by billions in spending controlled by a tiny fraction of voters. Central to its ruling, the court conjured from thin air its assertion that these concentrated billions would not corrupt American politics:

“(I)ndependent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. . . . The fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt. . . . The appearance of influence or access . . . will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

The court’s cribbed conception of corruption (bags of cash for votes) is flatly disproven by a groundbreaking 2014 study by two Princeton political scientists. They traced the outcomes of 1,779 contested federal policy issues over a 20-year period, finding – little surprise – that economic elites and organized business interests enjoy substantial impact. The stunner: average members of the public have statistically zero influence.

The court was even more wrong about the appearance of corruption. Two recent national polls, Rasmussen and Campaign Legal Center, show that Americans now rank political corruption as our nation’s No. 1 most serious, crisis-level issue.

We must now address that American citizens, to whom our Founders designed our government to be solely accountable, now have zero influence. Our government is largely run by a few hundred people who control billions in party and non-party Super PACs, illegal foreign money and dark money campaign spending.

These facts about our corrupt political process are blazingly obvious to the public. They are why supermajorities – 66% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats – back a constitutional amendment to restore to Congress and the states the power to set limits on campaign spending and contributions. Resolutions to launch exactly this amendment, H.J.Res. 2 and S.J.Res. 51, have been introduced into both bodies of Congress. But, of the 255 combined co-sponsors, only two are Republicans.

So, why the gaping disconnect on corruption reform between Republican voters and congressional Republicans? Perhaps it’s today’s if-they-are-for-it, we-must-be-against-it hyper-partisanship. More likely, post Citizens United, Republicans have done better at the dark-money game than Democrats. But in the 2018 election cycle, liberal dark money groups suited up and outspent conservatives by almost 2 to 1. For the 2020 dark-money race, Democrats are again on track to beat Republicans..

For this coldly pragmatic reason, congressional Republicans ought to back a corruption reform amendment. But Republican backing is far more powerfully compelled by the fundamental conservative principles around which our party is built.

To defend federalism

Since Citizens United, Tom Steyer, George Soros, Sheldon Adelson and the big unions have flooded our states with hundreds of millions to buy our elections. In swing states and congressional districts a handful of San Francisco, Manhattan and (likely) Saudi money people are picking our candidates for us. In the days before elections, voters are overwhelmed with a blizzard of dark money ads filled with unrebutted lies. Debate is narrowed, voters get even more cynical – and issues get nationalized. Warns former congressman Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, “this should be a wake-up call to Republicans. Secret spending in elections has the potential to denigrate every candidate in every election, and candidates are losing complete control of the messages in their campaigns to these outside groups.”

Michael Bloomberg may spend $1 billion in the 2020 election cycle. A single person could more than conceivably determine which party controls the Senate and the White House. This Manhattanite did exactly this in New Hampshire in 2018, using his carefully targeted money to flip our state House and Senate to Democratic control. In New Hampshire’s 2016 race for U.S. Senate, decided for the Democrat by 1,700 votes, $132 million was spent, 95% from out-of-state sources.

The 10th Amendment reserves to the states and people, respectively, all powers not expressly granted by the Constitution to the federal government. The 10th Amendment guarantees respect for local preferences and political space to test and replicate successful policies. The big-money system is now eclipsing federalism, one of our strongest protections against the tyranny that history shows grows in the dark swamps of concentrated power.

To defend capitalism

American free-market capitalism has bestowed greater aggregate wealth and well-being worldwide than in all of prior human history. But the system of pay-to-play politics has mutated free-market capitalism into crony capitalism, where government picks economic winners and losers by doling out tax breaks, loan guarantees, regulatory favors and contract awards. Instead of delivering better products and services to customers, business competes by buying influence or submitting to extortion in Washington.

The result? Innovation and new business formation have dropped to historic lows. It’s why we have the world’s highest drug prices, broadband and cellular dead zones, and trillion-dollar, sitting-duck weapons systems that don’t work. It’s why young and non-white voters – who will be the majority in a generation – now favor socialism over capitalism. The pay-to-play influence economy enabled by our corrupt campaign finance system is the single most direct threat to free-market capitalism.

An amendment grand bargain

So far, conservative principles and party pragmatism have not pried congressional Republicans loose from their nearly unanimous opposition to an anti-corruption amendment. In the eerily parallel partisan universe, since 1995 when the Supreme Court struck down term limits for members of Congress, Republicans have repeatedly backed a term-limits amendment to the Constitution, usually with little Democratic support. But a supermajority of voters – 76% of Democrats and 89% of Republicans – support term limits.

The way out of dead-end congressional partisanship on both amendments is a grand bargain: a fresh resolution combining campaign anti-corruption and term limits amendment language introduced with a significant and equal number of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. These amendments should be considered by the states for potential ratification as separate questions.

The breakthrough bipartisanship needed to get this done will be the biggest move in many years to restore faith in democracy and to heal our divided republic.

(Jim Rubens is a Republican, past New Hampshire state senator, New Hampshire GOP platform committee chair, and 2014 and 2016 candidate for U.S. Senate. He is a serial entrepreneur and venture investor, board member for American Promise and New England chair of Take Back Our Republic.)

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