Other Voices

After five years, Citizens United in need of a fix

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio Star-Telegram

As any parent can likely tell you, five-year-olds can sometimes seem like destructive forces of nature.

But it’s unlikely that any five-year-old can claim to be as damaging as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has been to our democracy.

That ruling, handed down five years ago Wednesday, held that when it comes to spending in our elections, corporations have the same free speech rights as people.

Ever since, our elections have seen a fundamental change. Instead of being a race to reveal candidates’ vision, credentials and capabilities, elections have become a race to attract the biggest donations from mega-donors.

Big money has never spoken softly in our elections. But Citizens United represented a sea change, making way for the rise of Super PACs and ushering in an era where mega-donors are at least as important as the politicians they back.

Millions of ordinary Americans who support candidates with their hard-earned money are finding that huge contributions from just a few big-money donors render their political donations nearly inconsequential.

It’s no surprise that recent elections have led to some of the least popular Congresses in history — and that the just-passed midterm elections saw the lowest voter participation since World War II.

Last year the Supreme Court went even further in another case, McCutcheon v. FEC, by striking down a federal contribution limit for the first time ever.

The aggregate limits deemed unconstitutional in McCutcheon only applied to donors capable of giving candidates contributions totaling more than $100,000 per election cycle — but the court decided that these mega-donors need even more opportunities to drown out the voices of the rest of us.

It’s clear that inaction risks irreparable harm to American democracy.

Fortunately, the American people have clearly rejected Citizens United as the status quo, with 16 states and more than 600 cities and towns having called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

Beyond this much-needed amendment, there are also more immediate solutions within reach.

The just-reintroduced Government By the People Act would match small contributions with limited public funds, allowing grassroots candidates relying on small donors to compete with big money candidates.

A recent analysis of competitive House races in the 2014 midterms by TexPIRG and Demos confirmed that such a program could fundamentally change the balance of power in congressional elections.

The study found the top two vote-getters in the 25 most competitive districts got more than 86 percent of their contributions from donors giving large contributions.

Meanwhile, our analysis looked at grassroots-backed candidates and found that a small donor match would have substantially decreased, or even flipped, the money advantage in their races.

Fortunately, Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, are leading the way by cosponsoring the Government By the People Act, which would help solve these problems by allowing refundable income tax credits for qualified individual campaign donations.

But more in Congress need to follow their example, including Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Will Hurd, R-San Antonio; and Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes.

Democracy only works when members of the general public believe that they are engaged in the common project of self-governance.

It suffers when ordinary citizens doubt their own influence over the decisions that affect their lives.

On its fifth anniversary, there’s no doubt that Citizens United dealt our democracy a significant blow.

But it’s within our power to reverse the decision, empower ordinary Americans in our elections, and reclaim our democracy for the people.

Sara E. Smith is an attorney and the director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG).