Given that U.S. politics is an open, viscous sewer, I guess it’s nice that Hillary Clinton has made “Revitalizing Our Democracy” one of the “Four Fights” of her presidential campaign.
What’s less nice is that her proposals for dealing with the geysers of cash inundating U.S. politics are vague and hand-wavy. And she doesn’t have an explanation for how she’s going to pursue even these vague, hand-wavy goals.
Here’s everything Clinton said in her kick-off campaign speech last Saturday about money and politics:
Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations …
We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people.
We need Justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, rather than every corporation’s right to buy elections.
If necessary, I will support a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
But maybe she’s gone into excruciating, wonky detail on her website? Nope. This is all HillaryClinton.com tells you (with my explanations of its significance below):
Donations of the few overpower the voices of the many
Campaign spending by the 100 biggest political donors in 2014 nearly exceeded the amount contributed by the 4.75 million citizens who donated $200 or less. Since Citizens United, fewer than 200 donors and their spouses have funded 60 percent of the $1 billion in Super PAC spending …
Appoint Supreme Court Justices who will protect the right to vote
We have to reduce the influence of big money in politics. The next president should appoint Supreme Court Justices who will protect the right to vote and not the right of billionaires to buy elections.
Propose a Constitutional amendment for campaign finance reform
We need to undo the Supreme Court’s damage in Citizens United and stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of everyday Americans — even if it takes a Constitutional amendment.
The first of these three things, about the inordinate influence of the 100 biggest campaign donors, is just a description of our current awful reality.
The second is something that would be in Clinton’s power, if she were president. She would appoint Supreme Court Justices to fill any vacancies, and could apply a vague, hand-wavy litmus test that, as she said last month, they must “protect the right to vote and not the right of billionaires to buy elections.” Clinton did explicitly tell top donors in private that she would only nominate justices who would vote to overturn Citizens United, but she has not been that specific in public.
The third, about a constitutional amendment overturning the Citizens United decision, sounds more significant than it is. Presidents play no formal role at all in amending the Constitution. Barack Obama has already said several times that we should “seriously consider” trying to ratify such an amendment and that’s made little difference.
In theory, of course, Clinton could lead a nationwide campaign to pressure Congress and state legislatures to adopt and ratify a constitutional amendment. But saying she’ll only support such an amendment “if necessary” is a far cry from that.
For historical context: Dwight Eisenhower specifically told Congress in 1957 that he supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but it wasn’t until 1971 (for the House of Representatives) and 1972 (for the Senate) that the ERA was adopted by the necessary supermajority. And it then still fell three states short of the 38 needed for ratification.
As Bernie Sanders recently pointed out, even presidents can’t do much worthwhile without a mobilized, organized public. And there’s little sign — not in Clinton’s speeches, on her website or in her four decades of public life — that she’d devote any energy to encouraging that kind of mobilization.
Clinton has hinted at more detailed plans to come. For instance, she’s said she’s consulting legal experts for other ways to thwart Citizens United without a constitutional amendment. But her campaign won’t tell me about any; they’ve ignored repeated requests to say more on this subject or just to confirm that they will say more in the future.
How will we be able to tell if Clinton is really serious about this? Or at least serious about making people think she’s serious? Here are some specific actions she could commit to as president that wouldn’t require the involvement of Congress:
• Endorse a specific constitutional amendment on campaign financing, and explain how she’s going to mobilize Americans to get it adopted and ratified. There’s already a possible amendment that 54 senators for voted in 2013.
• Issue an executive order forcing federal contractors to disclose all political contributions. Most big corporations, both publicly and privately held, are federal contractors of some kind and loathe to lose the government as a customer, but are currently able to donate unlimited amounts of “dark money” to nonprofits and trade associations without anyone knowing they’ve done so.
• Ask the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their dark money spending. This would effect public companies that are not federal contractors. Right now the Obama administration appears to be going backwards in this area.
(In fairness to Clinton, the “Revitalizing Our Democracy” section of her website does include some important, specific proposals that are less directly about money in politics: to push Congress to repair the Voting Rights Act, create a national standard of a minimum of 20 days of early voting, and implement automatic, universal voter registration.)
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
(This post is from our blog: Unofficial Sources.)