Turning Back the Assault on Our Democratic Process

United States Capitol Building
The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Zach Berger/Campaign Legal Center

The 2012 elections and the second inauguration of President Barack Obama are now behind us, and, thank goodness, the unproductive 112th Congress is long gone. As the 113th Congress begins, hope and optimism should spring anew.

But a continuing assault from all sides on our democratic process can't help but dampen enthusiasm. Even after tepid filibuster reform, a 40 percent minority in the Senate can block real change. Gerrymandered districts in the House have produced a body that is controlled by a party with a 33 seat majority that lost the popular vote by more than 1 million votes. And an extremist minority of the House makes the possibility of meaningful action on important issues such as gun violence and campaign finance reform theoretical. Elements in the Republican Party continue efforts to curtail voting access for vulnerable population groups. President Obama is following the path set by President George W. Bush and using presidential signing statements to nullify parts of lawfully enacted statutes they wish to ignore. 

And unrestrained, undisclosed money is flowing into the political system from every side. His rhetoric notwithstanding, President Obama has embraced the world of SuperPACs and dark money groups through Priorities USA. And he is now throwing his weight behind an entity run by his political cronies, Organizing for Action, that will accept unlimited private and corporate money to help enact his policy agenda. Can you imagine the reaction if President Bush had created a similar organization?

Faced with these facts, there are two choices. One is to shrug your shoulders, roll your eyes, and give up. So very tempting.

The other is to get mad -- fighting mad. The special interests that successfully insert provisions into the Hurricane Sandy aid package to benefit Amgen, a drug manufacturer, are depending on Americans' cynicism and apathy to get their way. These sweetheart closed-door deals stoke the apathy special interests need to get their way with lawmakers and to essentially veto any meaningful reform on the big issues we face as a nation.

Fighting back means demanding more from our elected officials and more from our fellow citizens. It means organizing ourselves more effectively. It means finding new ways to convey to our fellow citizens what's at stake and more clearly articulating workable solutions. Time spent chasing unachievable or ineffective answers sap time and deplete limited resources.

Here's what should be done:

  • Press President Obama to appoint new, effective members of the Federal Election Commission. As he said recently when he nominated a tough former federal prosecutor to the had the Securities and Exchange Commission, ""[I]t's not enough to change the law. We also need cops on the beat to enforce the law." Nothing better describes the situation at the FEC.
  • Press President Obama to get the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to update its rule governing "dark money groups" that are violating the law but escaping punishment due to sclerotic bureaucratic rules and lax enforcement.
  • Push Congress to pass disclosure legislation to respond to the impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that led to hundreds of millions of dollars in untraceable money being spent on candidate attacks ads in the 2012 elections.
  • Build support inside and outside of Washington for a campaign finance system that incentivizes candidates' pursuit of small donor contributions and makes small donors feel as if their contribution counts, including robust tax credits or refunds. Strengthen candidates and parties by fixing the current "lowest unit rate" statute that gives them access to the airwaves at reasonable rates.

None of the above will be easily accomplished. But all are essential in the ongoing struggle to keep our democracy vibrant and healthy and will require an engaged and citizenry that refuses to accept the status quo. The assault on our democracy is real, but the power to change it rests with us.

This opinion piece originally ran in The Huffington Post on February 22, 2013.