Viewpoint: Without the Udall amendment, money will hijack elections

A Pew Research Center poll last week reported that Americans are more politically polarized than ever. Republicans increasingly are openly contemptuous of Democrats, and vice versa; we choose our friends, business associates, often even our neighborhoods, with politics in mind. But amid the discord, pretty much all agree that our politics are broken and that money is a big part of the reason.

More than $6 billion went into the 2012 presidential and congressional elections and another $2.7 billion was invested in statehouse races, according to figures compiled by a pair of non-partisan research groups. To reach the average amount it now takes to win a seat in the Senate, a senator must raise roughly $4,600 each day of the year for his or her six-year term; House members must raise roughly $2,000 every day of their two-year terms to reach the winning average.

A recent Common Cause New Mexico survey found that four in five state voters believe the influence major campaign donors have on politicians is a serious problem; more than three-quarters of voters see a serious problem in the impact that large campaign donors have on elections.

And small businesses agree: A poll of 500 small business owners by the Main Street Alliance, the American Sustainable Business Council, and Small Business Majority found two-thirds believe the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. FEC case hurts small companies. According to David Levine, executive director of the Sustainable Business Council, “Business owners are frustrated because they have to compete with big business bank accounts to be heard.”

So what do we do about it?

Because the Supreme Court has the last word on what the Constitution permits and what it doesn’t, reining in the power of big money in politics now requires either a change in the court or a change in the Constitution. Only time can change the court; we Americans can change the Constitution with an amendment that restores the importance of voters instead of donors.

Constitutional amendments are warranted in only the rarest of circumstances, but this is one of those moments; the foundation of our democracy is at risk.

There is broad bipartisan support for a constitutional amendment that will restore the ability of Congress and the states to limit the role of money in our campaigns. President Obama, more than 150 members of Congress and voters or legislators in 16 states and more than 550 cities and towns already have endorsed an amendment. Statewide votes in 2012 in Colorado and Montana produced 3-1 majorities on ballot questions calling for a constitutional amendment. The same voters delivered a five-percentage-point majority for President Obama in Colorado and a 13-point victory for Mitt Romney in Montana.

The country’s frustration is getting Washington’s attention. More than a dozen amendment proposals have been introduced in this Congress. One of them, Senate Joint Resolution 19, authored by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, is slated for a subcommittee review this week, with a floor vote likely before the end of the year.

The Udall amendment would give Congress and state legislatures authority to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money on political campaigns, including that spent by “independent” super PACs, corporations and wealthy individuals.

Senator Udall has affirmed that, despite the rhetoric now flowing from its opponents, the amendment is not meant to impose any serious restriction on free speech or political debate. It is intended simply to restore the law to its pre-Citizens United, pre-Buckley v. Valeo state, with political spending subject to sensible regulations. Senators from both sides of the aisle will be able to suggest revisions to Sen. Udall’s draft, a process that is already under way in the Judiciary Committee. Americans had open, robust political debates then and we’ll continue to have them under the amendment.

This is about letting every voice be heard, and not allowing the First Amendment to be hijacked by those who would use their money to drown out their opponents.

Viki Harrison is the Executive Director of Common Cause New Mexico.

See More: Money & Influence