Coming at a moment of profound political and social crisis, What Is Democracy? reflects on a word we too often take for granted.
Most of the attention being paid to politics at present is focused on Iran, the presidential impeachment, and the upcoming election. But buried under all that noise is a number nine political earthquake that’s just beginning to rumble. And a local pro-democracy group called Fix Democracy First, a national pro-democracy organization known as Free Speech for People, and the people of Seattle, led by Seattle City Council member Lorena Gonzales, are the ones setting the earth in motion.
One of the few points of almost universal political agreement in our otherwise horribly divided country is that big money from ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations (including unions) is destroying our democracy. Super PACs have been the vehicle for most of this corrupting money. Most people think the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs FEC created Super Political Actions Committees (PACs). Not so! Citizens United left intact all contribution limits, including those that apply to PACs. Six months after the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United, a D.C. appellant court decision known as Speech Now vs. SEC ruled that contributions to PACs that do not contribute to or coordinate with candidate campaigns could not be regulated. And with that, PACs that could receive huge contributions from corporations and the ultra-wealthy, i.e. Super-PACs, were born.
While Super PACs have proven to be an Achilles Heel for our campaign system, it turns out that Super PACs have an Achilles heel of their own. Brilliant lawyers at Free Speech for People have determined that the lower court made both legal and logical errors in reaching its conclusion. The lower court reasoned that if, as stated by SCOTUS in Citizens United, expenditures by independent PACs do not cause corruption or the appearance of corruption, then contributions to them also cannot cause corruption and, therefore, cannot be regulated. But a forty-year history of court decisions, some coming after Citizens United, has consistently held that while expenditures do not corrupt, contributions might and, therefore, can be regulated.
The Speech Now decision was never appealed to the Supreme Court. SCOTUS has never ruled on the question of whether contributions to independent PACs can be regulated. It has, however, upheld such limits on ordinary PACs. What is needed now is for some level of government to defy the Speech Now decision and precipitate a court challenge on this issue. This is exactly what the City of Seattle is poised to do.
Fix Democracy First’s Executive Director, Cindy Black, first approached the council with the idea in late 2018. Free Speech for People has provided legal expertise and a commitment to defend the ordinance pro bono all the way to the Supreme Court. Council Member Lorena Gonzales has taken the lead in bringing this issue before the council and we are optimistic that it will be adopted in early 2020. It is known as the Seattle Clean Elections ordinance. Among other things it would limit contributions to any PACs to $5000, not the $1.5 million Amazon made in the recent election.
If this ordinance is passed and successfully defended in the Supreme Court, it would literally mean Super-PACs could be banned everywhere. No constitutional amendment would be required. The impact on “big money” would be dramatic. The impact on our Democracy, earth shaking.
If you are a Seattle voter, please contact your Council Members and let them know you really support them in passing the ordinance limiting the size of contributions that can be made to independent PACs.
Fix Democracy First is proud and honored to be a vital part of this effort, along with Free Speech for People and the Seattle City Council, with particular gratitude to CM Lorena Gonzales.