Issue #27, Winter 2013

Everyone’s Fight: The New Plan to Defeat Big Money

The 2012 campaign is by now mercifully out of our systems, but it remains worth reflecting on some of the dubious firsts that occurred during this election. This was the first presidential campaign to cost more than $2 billion. It was also the first time neither candidate accepted any public financing or the limits that come with it. Finally, it was the first presidential election after Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allowed around $600 million in super PAC donations this cycle, and many millions more to nonprofit “social welfare” groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.

But even these bleak facts don’t do justice to the problem of Big Money. Campaign spending isn’t even our most dire money-in-politics problem. That would be the thousands of lobbyists and many millions of their dollars that are devoted to the warping of our public policy. These powerful lobbies control most outcomes on Capitol Hill, and the problem is far worse than it was 20 years ago. Congressional staffers, representatives, and even senators leave public service only to join the lobbying firms of industries they were previously responsible for regulating, trading in their access and social networks for stratospheric salaries. It sometimes seems as if money and influence-peddling aren’t the occasional impurities in the political system, but the fuel that keeps it running.

To make matters worse, the government-reform movement is woefully underfunded and understaffed in the battle against groups like the Chamber of Commerce—organizations that have the resources of entire industries behind them. This makes mustering the political will to enact even uncontroversial measures—like requiring the disclosure of large-money donors—seem impossible.

In this issue of Democracy, we highlight the problem of money in politics. As a journal of ideas, we tend to let others discuss electoral horse races and the day-to-day jockeying for political advantage. But as has become increasingly clear in this era of rampant economic and political inequality, even the best ideas stand no chance when their opponents have Big Money on their side. To get the best ideas a fair hearing, progressives must first tackle the problem of political corruption.

And, importantly, everyone who wants to see fairer and less corrupted politics needs to be a part of this effort. Indeed, the central point of this symposium is to persuade advocates on behalf of all good-government and progressive causes that the fight against Big Money is their fight, too. Whatever their desired outcome is, it’s Big Money that on some level is blocking it, and its dominance won’t be challenged until everyone realizes this and puts skin in the game.

We asked 11 contributors to diagnose the different parts of this problem and prescribe some solutions to each. Bill Moyers and Arnold Hiatt pen a letter to their friends in the progressive philanthropic movement, arguing that political reform groups are desperately in need of funding and support. Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons make the case for why foundations that fund worthy causes like environmental and health-care reform need to invest more in the reform movement—and propose a specific way for them to do so. Wendell Potter argues that even groups with nonpolitical agendas—like those devoted to public health or retirees—must make political reform a priority. Stan Collender recalls the moment when lobbying first infected the politics behind the budget—and describes how things have only gotten worse. Meanwhile, Jacob Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil take a look at the economic impact of that distorted budget process—and argue that political inequality has paved the way for economic inequality.

What do we do about it? Trevor Potter and Bryson B. Morgan lay out a series of solutions to the problems created by Citizens United, none of which would require the nigh-impossible step of enacting a constitutional amendment. Finally, former Senator Russ Feingold bemoans Democrats’ succumbing to the new campaign-finance order and suggests how we can build a permanent movement for political reform.

While we have at least a couple years before the presidential cycle restarts, there’s no time like the present for reform. The more corrupted the system becomes, the harder it is to fix. More time means more companies dependent on tax breaks, more donors flooding races with money, and more politicians who see their future careers dependent on current votes. The foundation for a new progressive agenda begins with loosening Big Money’s grip on our politics and policy.

Everyone’s Fight: The New Plan to Defeat Big Money

An Open Letter to Patriotic Philanthropists by Bill Moyers & Arnold Hiatt

Curing Philanthropy’s Blind Spot: One Percent for Democracy by Nick Penniman & Ian Simmons

Nonpolitical? No Such Thing Today by Wendell Potter

How Big Money Corrupts the Budget by Stan Collender

How Big Money Corrupts the Economy by Jacob S. Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil

Campaign Finance: Remedies Beyond the Court by Trevor Potter and Bryson B. Morgan

Building a Permanent Majority for Reform by Russ Feingold


Issue #27, Winter 2013
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Tyler Creighton:

A much appreciated attempt to make the need for good government a rallying cry for all groups and individuals looking to bring about progressive, lasting change, whether it be with regard to workers rights, the environment, education, you name it.

When policy is judged on who can write the biggest campaign check, rather than on its merits alone, none of these issues get the attention they deserve.

Good government reform is one area where we can all come together to fight well-coordinated and well-financed special interests.

Jan 9, 2013, 9:34 AM

Additional sources on the topic of Money in Politics:

Jan 9, 2013, 11:36 AM

I agree, let's do something about it! There has been a lot of talk about the problem of money in politics and what should be done in the abstract, but let's finally start organizing around *specific* legislation and forming a movement around it.

One such legislation that I strongly support (and so do 315,000 other co-sponsors as of mid November--when it was introduced) is the American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA), which can be found at and/or . Trevor Potter was one of the primary framers of the act, and it has other big names like Lawrence Lessig and Jack Abramoff backing it too (as well as groups on both the left and right, from OWS to some of the truly grassroots parts of the Tea Party).

The site gives a great breakdown of the act (as well as a PDF of the act itself), but to summarize some of the things it would do: place severe restrictions on lobbying, close the revolving door, dismantle citizens united, require almost full disclosure (basically DISCLOSE Act), and establish a new, compelling system of public funding of campaigns. The system of public funding would give each citizen a $100 tax rebate (so they have a personal incentive to utilize it) that could be allocated to federal candidates as they see fit, and in opting in to the system the candidate in turn would need to accept substantial limits on how they could fundraise from other sources. If each citizen that voted in 2012 allocated their $100, this would mean twice 6 billion spent overall in 2012. To me, this makes the system more compelling than a matching funds system of public financing.

Even if congress does not pass the act, if we can get a million or so people to back it, this would create the foundation for a constitutional amendment.

Jan 10, 2013, 11:47 AM

LOVE that you only featured men here. Both because they basically are "everyone" (are women even people? Who knows!) and because men are totally the final authority on how to fix the problem they definitely didn't cause. Snaps!

Jan 15, 2013, 5:03 PM
robert landbeck:

'Big Money' must fall, but it certainly won't come crashing down any time soon, by any existing political process. But there is another way!

Jan 21, 2013, 4:08 PM

Whoever posted the January 15th comment is an unfocused moron, and part of problem with why nothing will change on this issue any time soon. They would rather argue over STUPID irrelevant junk like "whose" mouth a word comes out of than whether it's true, and therefore, refuse to take anything seriously if the messenger isn't "who" they want it to be.

Feb 23, 2013, 7:37 AM
frank williams:

This includes the BIG money of the Unions too? Doesn't it?

Feb 28, 2013, 2:35 PM

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