Equal Citizens or Oligarchy?

Last June, New Hampshire lawmakers approved a resolution calling for the 28th Amendment, making the Granite State the 20th state to do so. American Promise President Jeff Clements spoke in New Hampshire soon after. Below is a version of his speech, edited for brevity and clarity.

The resolution recently enacted in New Hampshire says: Congress and [the] States shall regulate the role of money in elections and governance to ensure transparency, prevent corruption, and protect against the buying of access to or influence over representatives.  

This proposed 28th Amendment would reverse U.S. Supreme Court decisions decreeing that unlimited money from corporations, unions and the super-wealthy to influence local, state and federal elections is simply free speech, protected by the First Amendment, no matter the consequences.

At American Promise, we believe the Supreme Court is wrong and New Hampshire is right. 

New Hampshire’s resolution takes a view of free speech that says all Americans have free speech rights—an equal right to speak and be heard, an equal right to be represented in our political system, and an equal right and responsibility to learn and understand many diverse viewpoints. Today I want to share with you why I am confident that the constitutional amendment New Hampshire now stands behind will prevail. Let’s begin with some facts.

Twenty years ago, Doris “Granny D” Haddock, at the age of 89, inspired the nation with her 3,000-mile cross-country walk to Washington, D.C., to demand reform of election spending. She had seen a shift in her long life—while once the voices of her and her fellow citizens were heard, now elite political donors dominated the attention of representatives.  

Granny D was far from alone. A federal investigation had reported that U.S. senators were admitting that “elected officials have become so dependent on political contributions from wealthy donors that the democratic principles underlying our government are at risk.”

President Bill Clinton, who was going to fundraisers six days a week, lamented privately, “I can’t think, I can’t do anything. Every minute of my time is spent at these fundraisers.”

Granny D tapped a nerve in America, and a remarkable thing happened: Republicans and Democrats in Congress came together to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as McCain-Feingold after its Senate co-sponsors. Among other things, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act closed loopholes for so-called soft money and prohibited corporations and unions from spending money for or against a candidate in the days close to the election. It was modest reform, but it was a start. 

Campaign Spending Skyrockets

In 2000, John Sununu’s campaign spent $578,000 to win the election in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District. Charles Bass’ campaign for the 2nd District spent $812,000. More than 75% of their donors were New Hampshire citizens. In 2002, the Senate race cost $9 million—a lot of money. 

But fast forward to 2016, when the U.S. House candidates in New Hampshire spent about $3 million in each race, and in the U.S. Senate race each candidate spent more than $18 million. Not only was this a 400% increase compared with 2002, but now most of the money came from wealthy donors far removed from New Hampshire.

Supporters of HB 504, a resolution calling for the 28th Amendment to get big money out of politics, gather at a legislative hearing in New Hampshire.

Back in New Hampshire in 2002, “outside money” spending—that is, money spent outside the campaigns—was minimal: $68,000 in PAC contributions. In 2016, outside groups—the so-called Super PACs—spent nearly $100 million in New Hampshire elections. 

A look behind those numbers reveals why ordinary citizens are not heard or represented anymore. 

The biggest spender in the 2016 New Hampshire election was something called Granite State Solutions—ironically not from the Granite State at all, but formed in Georgia just before the election. Granite State Solutions spent $24 million, and almost all of that money—$22 million—came from an entity called the Senate Leadership Fund, based in Virginia. Another major spender in the same election was the Senate Majority PAC, which was created in Washington, D.C., and spent more than $15 million in New Hampshire.

Not one of the big donors behind these astronomical numbers is from New Hampshire. 

So if the millions of dollars spent in the 2016 New Hampshire election is just free speech, New Hampshire citizens were awfully quiet in it. 

But money is not just free speech. These huge election donors did not ever come to New Hampshire to talk about local views during the 2016 election. They did not offer New Hampshire citizens their ideas or opinions. They hid in the shadows. They wrote huge checks to flex their muscles and build their power. 

What happened in the few short years from 2002 to 2016 to turn a New Hampshire Senate race from a pretty shocking $9 million affair with plenty of New Hampshire donors into a $132 million mud-fest with few New Hampshire donors?

A few Supreme Court justices rewrote the Constitution and the First Amendment. 

Court Reverses on Campaign Reform

In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, finding that common-sense limits on money in elections was consistent with free speech and the First Amendment. This view is shared by most Americans. Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, federal and state laws have regulated how money is used in elections to prevent corruption and protect our rights as equal citizens.

But in 2010, in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decided that the very same Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act upheld only a few years earlier now violated the First Amendment. The Court declared that unlimited spending in elections is free speech, and corporations and unions are speakers just like you and me, with the same right to spend unlimited money to influence election outcomes. 

Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach is a Republican who served in Congress for many years and now serves on our American Promise Council. He says that with these decisions, the Supreme Court has “genetically modified our democratic DNA, pushing America toward corporatism and oligarchy.” 

Two Core Principles

The genetic modification trick of the Court was to strip two core principles from the First Amendment. 

First, our rights as equal citizens, with free speech rights that are no more or no less than anyone else’s. You may think that our equal rights to speak and be represented are sufficiently important to weigh in on the First Amendment balance against the power of money. The Court says no, your political equality as a citizen has no bearing on the issue.

New Hampshire citizen leaders Ella McGrail (left) and Corinne Dodge (right, dressed as Betsy Ross) pose at an American Promise event.

This is pretty radical. The idea of political equality, that we have inalienable and reciprocal rights because we are equal human beings in society together, goes back to the Declaration of Independence. It is the whole reason for the United States of America. Our political equality is in contrast to the system that our American Revolution rejected: an aristocracy, a wealthy political class, who make the rules for everyone else.

The Court’s second genetic modification to our national DNA was to strip out consideration of systemic corruption in the First Amendment balance. The Court declared that unlimited election spending by Super PACS, corporations, unions or the wealthy does not cause corruption or the appearance of corruption. Why not? Because the Court said so. But saying so does not make it so.

Let’s get back to New Hampshire for a minute. The state Constitution declares that all power resides in the people, who have “the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent state;” “Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive.” 

So, if unlimited money from outside the state and the huge amounts of time candidates spent chasing that money instead of representing New Hampshire creates a systemic problem of making government less open, accessible, accountable and responsive, and more corrupt, shouldn’t New Hampshire citizens be able to do something about it? No, says the Supreme Court. You can’t do anything about it.

When we ratify the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, the answer will be yes, you can do something about it.

With this Amendment for reasonable rules about money in elections, we get more, not less, free speech. 

We hear from more, not fewer, citizens. 

We get more ideas, from more people, and more real debate than all the billions of dollars of attack ads can ever offer. 

We get more candidates and a wider offering of citizens willing to serve, if they aren’t forced to pander to the elite donor class and spend up to 75% of their time raising money.

We will have more cross-partisan, practical solutions as representatives are no longer silenced or steered by the threat or reward of the richly funded attack ad machine.

More information, wiser deliberation and better citizen representation. 

Ella McGrail, a young New Hampshire woman who walked across the state in support of the 28th Amendment, says: “Freedom of speech is the stories, experiences, wisdoms, pleas, and views of our people. It is not dollar bills or checks exchanged behind closed doors. Money does talk, but in doing so it silences [others].” 

This is not partisan. The most recent survey of Americans shows support for the 28th Amendment at 81%. We see the same huge support among Republicans, Democrats and independents whenever the people get a say. That’s why it is up to us, the citizens, to move this ahead with steady perseverance. 

Even as we Americans may have grave concerns about our political system, we still believe in the promise of our American Revolution—equal citizens, human liberty and our own responsibility for effective self-government. If we believe that, then now we must act.

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