Whose Government? Whose Voice?

How Citizens United Is Helping Big Money Outmuscle Public Opinion

In November 2008, American voters made history by electing Barack Obama, a dynamic newcomer to national politics and the first African American to be chosen as President. He came into office on a wave of hope, built largely on his promise to change the way Washington works. America is more than a collection of “red states” and “blue states,” he once famously declared. “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

But as President Obama moves into the fourth quarter of his presidency, America is more divided and Washington is more dysfunctional than ever. Officially, our economy has recovered and most of the troops we sent to Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks have come home. But for most Americans, prosperity remains elusive. Our government seems unable to address the nation’s most pressing problems, and when it manages to act, it often does so in ways that work more for powerful special interests than for the rest of us.

We have a big country and a complex society; none of us should be under the illusion that our problems can be solved easily. But in these pages, Common Cause makes the case that we will not begin to solve them until we rein in the power of big money in our elections and our government.

Progress toward that goal has been severely undermined by the current Supreme Court’s drive to deregulate election spending and vest corporations with constitutional rights. Our report examines how a string of decisions by the court, culminating in the Citizens United decision of January 2010, has opened the floodgates to big money influence in our democracy, giving special interests and the wealthy more control over our government and economy than they’ve enjoyed since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

A growing amount of that money has come from elaborately concealed donors, individual and corporate, allowing them to drown out the voices of the rest of us and to block legislation designed to ease the economic burdens facing millions of families, make our kids and our streets safer, stabilize our climate, and protect the free flow of information that is vital to democracy and a 21st century economy.

That leaves the rest of us asking whether government of, by and for the people is a thing of the past, and what we can do to get it back.

This Common Cause report explores five key issue areas where unfettered political spending and influence have blocked progress on solutions that large, bipartisan majorities of Americans support.

    • STAGNANT WAGES: More than 70 percent of Americans want the national minimum wage raised from its current level of $7.25 per hour. But minimum wage legislation is frozen in Congress thanks largely to big political spending by low-paying employers. In the 2014 cycle, Walmart alone spent $14.8 million on political contributions and lobbying. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent over $35 million in independent expenditures.
    • GUN CONTROL: Ninety percent of Americans support background checks on gun purchasers, but legislation to close the “gun show loophole” that lets thousands of buyers evade scrutiny is going nowhere in Congress thanks to the money and muscle of the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association alone spent more than $31.4 million during the 2014 election cycle in a successful drive to stave off reform.
    • CLIMATE CHANGE: While the devastation left by repeated floods and droughts across America demonstrates the disastrous impact of climate change, legislation to attack the buildup of carbon in our atmosphere is stalled. The impasse comes as the energy sector reported spending nearly $100 million on the 2014 elections, a total that doesn’t include millions more invested by fossil fuel-backed “dark money” groups that conceal their donors.
    • STUDENT DEBT: While 60 percent of Americans support action to lower the interest rate on student loans, a Senate filibuster has blocked legislation offering relief to 25 million student borrowers. Meanwhile, Wall Street banks, many of which profit from student loans, spent more than $100 million on the 2014 election.
    • NET NEUTRALITY: More than 80 percent of Americans support regulations that would keep the internet open to everyone. But the future of net neutrality remains in doubt, as big telecom and the anti-net neutrality lobby spent more than $42.8 million on the 2014 election to elect candidates who would give them free rein to establish fast and slow lanes online.