Words matter, but with each passing day, money is doing more of the talking in our elections.
We can credit the scores of people protesting economic inequity as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement for the term “1 percent,” simple shorthand for the message that the wealth gaps in our country must be addressed.
And we can thank journalist Ari Berman for “the .0000063 percent,” a term that refers to the 196 people who donated almost 80 percent of the money raised by secretive outside groups during last year’s elections.
Call it the influence gap.
While the .0000063 percent isn’t exactly slogan material, it is a good encapsulation of why we must reform our campaign finance system — starting now.
Each member of the .0000063 percent has given at least $100,000 to a “Super PAC.”
Ushered in by the 2010 Speechnow.org v. FEC court decision, Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money to advocate for the election or, more likely, the defeat of a candidate in a federal campaign.
Such prolific and exclusive electioneering was amplified by another disastrous court decision.
The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision said that corporations have the same rights as people and can spend unlimited general treasury funds to influence elections.
Together, the two decisions reversed a century of campaign finance law that, while flawed, at least maintained basic limits on special interest money in politics.
By affirming that money equals speech, the courts effectively wrote off the 99.9999937 percent – those who don’t have access to millions of dollars to spend on campaigns.
The nonpartisan, nonpolitical Congressional Research Service reported that outside groups spent 400 percent more in the 2010 elections than in 2006.
In the past two years, Super PACs raised approximately $181 million.
The most recent FEC filings show that more than 80 percent of donations to presidential Super PACs have been of $100,000 or more.
Now, outside spending is up more than 1,200 percent from the last presidential campaign cycle, and it’s still climbing.
Advocates for Citizens United, including the majority of the Supreme Court, argue that because it takes money to buy political advertising and get your message out, spending money is equal to protected speech.
They assert that a corporation spending millions of dollars opposing a candidate who does not support their policy objections is not inherently corrupt.
I disagree entirely. I don’t know a single member of Congress running against a viable opponent who is not afraid of an avalanche of Super PAC-funded attack ads.
Their effect on the campaign trail is fairly obvious, but the prospect of Super PAC opposition carries influence in the halls of Congress as well.
Strengthening disclosure rules is key to mitigating the harmful effects of Citizens United and Speechnow, and I recently cosponsored legislation — the DISCLOSE 2012 Act — to require far more accountability for those who seek to influence our elections.
The legislation would also require leaders and top financial contributors of Super PACs to be disclosed in their ads.
Super PACs only report contributions every three months, and many of their contributions are anonymous. That is woefully inadequate in our technological age, and it suggests that citizens are being denied even the basic tools to understand the well-funded messages targeted at them during campaigns.
But we must do more.
In December, I introduced a constitutional amendment to mitigate the effects of unrestricted spending on campaigns.
The amendment establishes that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment.
By establishing that money does not equal speech, this legislation allows Congress to regulate federal campaign finance without a constitutional challenge under Citizens United.
It also enables Congress to establish a public financing system that would serve as the sole source of funding for federal elections.
Until we get big money out of politics and close the influence gap, the average American has no voice, drowned out by the bullhorns of the .0000063 percent.
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, represents Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District. To learn more about overturning Citizens United, visit his website at Yarmuth.house.gov, or follow him on Twitter @RepJohnYarmuth.