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Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: Big money gets bigger: McCutcheon turns 1

Apr 20, 2015

The following article appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on April 20, 2015. 

By Rep. Mike Quigley and Abe Scarr

Corporations and wealthy donors have gained increased influence due to two recent, high-profile Supreme Court decisions. First, Citizens United v. FEC gave corporations the same free speech rights as individual Americans when it comes to election spending.

And one year ago, McCutcheon v. FEC struck down federal contribution limits, allowing even more money from the wealthiest donors to flood our elections.

Big money has never spoken softly in our elections. But these court decisions 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.

In fact, the top 32 donors to super PACs in the 2012 election — giving an average of $9.9 million each — contributed as much as all 3.7 million of President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s small donors.

As long as the voices of everyday Americans are drowned out by big money and special interests, the public’s trust in government will continue to crumble.

We need a government that is focused on answering to the people, not corporations and super PACs.

That’s why Congress needs to pass the Democracy for All Amendment, which would amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon and restore the people’s authority to pass laws protecting the integrity of our electoral process.

By reversing Citizens United and related cases, this amendment will advance the basic principle of one voice, one vote that is so integral to our democracy.

Beyond this much-needed amendment, there are also immediate reforms within reach that would shift the balance of power in our elections from big money to ordinary citizens.

The Government by the People Act would amplify the voices of ordinary citizens by matching small contributions with limited public funds, allowing grass-roots candidates relying on small donors to compete with big-money candidates. It would also provide a refundable tax credit for small contributions, encouraging more citizens to participate.

This type of program has been tried and tested in New York City.

In New York’s 2013 city council race, candidates participating in the program raised more than 60 percent of their funds from small donors when the matching funds were factored in, making small donors the candidates’ biggest source of campaign cash.

The potential of such programs is one reason why other states and localities are considering adopting them, including Chicago.

In the recent Chicago municipal election, 79 percent of voters supported an advisory question that would reduce the influence of special interest money by creating this type of small donor system.

Finally, while we deal with elections that are legally allowed to be flooded with corporate money, the least we can do is make campaign spending more transparent.

That’s why we encourage the president to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” and this reform will shine a light on the secret special interest money that is corrupting our elections and some of our elected officials.

Democracy works best when members of the general public feel engaged in the common project of self-governance.

It suffers when ordinary citizens doubt their own influence over the decisions that affect their daily lives. There’s no doubt that Citizens United and McCutcheon dealt our democracy a significant blow.

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

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley represents the 5th District of Illinois and chairs the Congressional Transparency Caucus. Quigley’s office be reached at (202) 225-4061.

Abe Scarr is the director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a statewide nonpartisan public interest advocacy organization. He can be reached at