"We have the best Congress money can buy," humorist Will Rogers quipped in the 1930s. More recent comedians have suggested that politicians wear NASCAR-like jumpsuits so citizens can see the logos of all of their sponsors.
Trouble is, the joke is no longer funny. Many of us think special-interest money and the corruption it creates are threatening the very future of American democracy.
Money's influence over government has grown for decades, but it has gotten immeasurably worse since a 5-4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. That narrow majority turned a decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission into a vehicle for rich people, corporations, unions and other special-interest groups to spend virtually unlimited sums to sway government and public policy.
Think it's bad now? Just wait until after the Republican and Democratic conventions. This campaign will be more awash in special-interest cash than any in American history. Billions of often-anonymous dollars will be spent, mostly on TV and radio attack ads that range from simplistic half-truths to outright lies.
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But there is a growing movement to amend the U.S. Constitution to stop the corruption by clarifying historic legal principles. The amendment would make clear that corporations are organizations, not people, and money is property, not speech.
One organization behind this push is Move to Amend (Movetoamend.org). One of its national spokesmen, David Cobb, will be in Lexington this week, speaking Thursday at 7 p.m. in the University of Kentucky Student Center's Center Theater. His talk is free and open to the public.
"The American people are disgusted by what they're seeing and hearing," Cobb said in a telephone interview earlier this month. "There's more of a recognition that a very small group of people are completely controlling the political process — and I mean a small group of people on both sides of the political aisle."
Democrats seem to complain more about this issue than Republicans do, because most special-interest money comes from corporations, which have found Republicans traditionally more willing to give corporations freedom to maximize profits.
But the issue is hardly one-sided. Do you think the lack of criminal prosecutions from the 2008 financial collapse could have something to do with all of the Wall Street money that went to President Barack Obama's campaign? Plus, Republicans point to all of the special-interest money that goes to Democrats from labor unions, environmental groups, Hollywood moguls, Internet tycoons and rich liberals such as George Soros.
Cobb said his organization has carefully framed its proposed amendment to avoid trying to set political policy. He said it simply clarifies legal principles intended by the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution two centuries ago.
The amendment states that organizations are not people — only people are people — and people, through their elected representatives, have the legal right to set rules for organizations. It also clarifies the right of the people, through their elected representatives, to regulate money used to influence elections, as most states have done for more than a century.
The amendment also emphasizes this: "Nothing contained in this amendment shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press."
Cobb said the amendment's language reflects the way the Constitution was interpreted for more than 175 years, until a series of activist court decisions beginning in 1974 and culminating in Citizens United.
"I want to stress that we have principled liberals, principled conservatives, moderates and independents all participating in Move to Amend," he said.
"Liberals and conservatives can disagree about what policies should be pursued, what issues matter, etc.," he said. "This is not a policy issue, but a question about how the rules of our political and legal system are supposed to operate, principles that I believe Americans share."