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June 05, 2014

Taking Back the Vote from Big Money and Billionaires

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to consider Senator Tom Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment to finally exclude big money from politics and return power in our democracy to the people. Udall’s amendment would overturn disastrous Supreme Court decisions that have opened the floodgates to big campaign money, like Citizens United v. FEC and, more recently, McCutcheon v. FEC.

040214 McCutcheon Decision rally
Sierra Club Democracy Program Director Courtney Hight addresses the crowd at a rally following the McCutcheon decision.


Since Citizens United, big money donors have been free to pour enormous amounts of money into campaigns. Between 2008 and 2012, outside spending from big polluters increased 11,761%. And their lobbying expenditures earned a staggering $59 back from every $1 invested. McCutcheon made a terrible situation much worse.

Udall’s Amendment seeks to turn the tide, slam those floodgates shut, and keep big money from drowning out the voice of the American people.

The hearing brought out some of the Senate’s most powerful members, spurring a heated debate between Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), and others, who disagreed vehemently on the issue.

"American families cannot compete with billionaires," Reid said at the opening of the hearing. "Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances."

Reid and others referenced big money campaign donors like the Koch brothers, a pair of oil barons with famously deep pockets that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political campaigns and front groups to push their agenda nationwide.

"I defy anyone to determine what the Koch brothers are spending money on today politically," Reid declared. "They must have fifteen phony organizations that they use to pump money into the system to hide who they really are: the two wealthiest men in America, interested in their bottom line."

McConnell, who himself received $58,550 from Koch Industries in 2012 alone, unsurprisingly spoke in opposition to the amendment, calling references to the Kochs a distraction from what he characterized as "how incredibly bad this proposed amendment is."

But there was mounting evidence that Udall’s legislation is needed now more than ever. Testifying before the committee, North Carolina State Senator Floyd McKissick spoke about his state’s recent experience in the post-Citizens United political landscape. Awash in outside spending pouring in from a handful of big money donors like the Kochs and North Carolina businessman Art Pope, the state’s legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive voter laws, gutting provisions that expand ballot access for everyone from low-income votes to African-American votes to elderly voters to disabled voters to young people, even removing an early voting period and eliminating same-day voter registration.

"It got harder for ordinary people to vote," McKissick said.

And, of course, this legislation received backing by the Kochs, Pope, and those politicians who came into power thanks to their financial support.

It’s one of the most egregious examples of a national trend that’s found big money campaign donors not just trying to drown out the voices of everyone else with their millions, but actively seeking to keep those who disagree with them from the ballot box.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois backed him up and went on to cite staggering figures that proved just how difficult it can be for an ordinary citizen to have a voice. In 2012, just 159 Americans accounted for 60% of super PAC donations. In 2010, one third of outside spending in North Carolina alone came from Art Pope, who subsequently received an appointment to Republican governor Pat McCrory’s administration.

"This is going to discourage mere mortals from participating in the political process," McKissick said. "Today it seems that big money and big donors pull the strings while ordinary citizens find it harder and harder to make their voices heard."

That’s exactly why the Sierra Club and so many others, like Public Citizen, People for the American Way, the Communications Workers of America and Common Cause, are backing Senator Udall’s amendment. It’s this kind of legislation that keeps citizens involved in our government and eliminates the ability of a handful of wealthy billionaires to steamroll the priorities of everyone else.

--Tori Ravenel, Sierra Club Media Team

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