Five to four.
That was the vote on a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years.
The Shelby County v. Holder case that invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act? A five to four decision. The 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC which further opened the floodgates of campaign spending from deep pockets and special interests? You guessed it. A five to four decision.
As one watches the deep dysfunction in American politics today, it’s easy to look quickly at the Supreme Court as a key factor in determining whether the role of everyday Americans in our government continues to be undermined or whether we start to revitalize this democracy.
The death of Antonin Scalia leaves the Court with a four to four split on every issue of major consequence and filling that seat gives us a chance to go back and fix what the court has gotten wrong in recent decades. That includes one key decision that the justices got completely wrong: Citizens United.
That ruling released a plague of campaign cash that has poisoned the halls of congress. With that decision the majority of justices decided the people power that made our nation exceptional was not as important as protecting corporations under the first amendment. It established that there is no difference between your individual political rights and those of a corporation.
We have been living with the consequences ever since. The five to four ruling paved the way for so-called Super PACs and “social welfare” groups, funded by millions of dollars of dark money, to thrive. No one has to disclose where their funding comes from. From the shadows these groups have unleashed wave after wave of political advertisements that dominate our screens and turn political debate into a WWE cage match.
Our system today gives a small group of very wealthy people a better chance of influencing the terms of the debate. The consequences have been felt in the last couple of election cycles. In 2012, 3.7 million Americans gave to either Governor Romney or President Obama in amounts of $200 or less. The amount they gave in the aggregate was matched by 32 high net-worth individuals giving money to Super PACs.
In the 2014 elections 100 mega donors contributed $323 million to campaigns–that’s almost as much as 4.75 million hard-working Americans. Here’s another 100 figure to think about. Politico has reported that so far in this 2016 election cycle 100 donors have outspent the combined donations of 2 million Americans…and it’s only February.
That’s a lot to get discouraged about. But I always like to tell folks that we shouldn’t agonize—we should organize. The Citizens United decision steered our country in the wrong direction, but now we can steer it back on course. A new justice appointed by President Obama could create an entirely different five to four outcome if this case were brought up again.
There are other key steps we should take. I’ve sponsored the “Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act,” a bipartisan bill to put the teeth back into what’s supposed to be our election watchdog, the Federal Elections Commission. I’ve also joined others in sponsoring the DISCLOSE Act, to shine a brighter light on dark money, and the “Government By the People Act” to move toward citizen-financed campaigns based on small dollar contributions. But overturning the Citizens United decision is a key element of empowering citizens and restoring faith in democracy.
Recently, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell said that, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice.” I couldn’t agree more. The American people re-elected President Obama in 2012 and part of his Constitutional duty is to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court.
We sent him back to the Oval Office so he could make these kinds of decisions. The longest a nominee to the Court has had to wait for confirmation from the time they were announced by the President was 125 days. The President has more than 300 left in office.
Let’s keep the pressure on the Senate to fulfill their obligation and allow a vote. The future of our country hangs in the balance. With a new Court we can fix our busted campaign finance system. We can finally return the voice of the people back to the halls of Congress. That’s something worth fighting for.
U.S. representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA, 6) represents Tacoma and the Olympic Peninsula. Kilmer was reelected to his second term in 2014 and is currently a member of the House Appropriations Committee where he sits on the Interior and Environment Subcommittee along with the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee.