On Tuesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing called “Taking Back Our Democracy,” examining special interests’ increasing grip on American politics and policy, especially focusing on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Two panels of witnesses, including both current lawmakers and activists, testified to a friendly panel of Democratic senators (no Republicans appeared to have shown up) that our democracy is under siege.
That sentiment was no surprise to anyone in the room (over 400 people showed up for the hearing, packing the room and causing spillover to another room). Again and again, testimonies confirmed that while money has played an enormous role in politics for decades, the past few years have marked a dramatic change:
- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I- Vt.) said that at least 23 extremely rich families have contributed at least $250,000 each in the 2012 campaigns. “My guess is that number is really much greater because many of these contributions are made in secret. In other words, not content to own our economy, the 1 percent want to own our government as well,” Sanders said.
- Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) cited Citizens United and the DC Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision on SpeechNow v. FEC as the two cases most directly responsible for the rise of super PACs. “But our campaign finance system was hardly a model of democracy before these opinions,” he said. “We have been on this dangerous path for a long time. The Citizens United and SpeechNow decisions may have picked up the pace, but the court laid the groundwork many years ago.”
- Gov. Buddy Roemer, former Republican presidential contender, lamented the “institutionalized corruption” gripping Congress, blaming it for the lack of trust Americans have in their government. “Washington, DC appears to be broken,” he said. “But it’s bought first.”
- Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig echoed much of Roemer’s statements and suggested a “citizens’ convention” to work on amending the Constitution. “The people have lost faith in their government,” he said. “…and the funders are not the people.”
Meanwhile, just one witness was invited by the Republicans on the Senate subcommittee, Ilya Shapiro from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Shapiro called Citizens United ”one of the most misunderstood high-profile cases ever” and proffered the typical libertarian solution to the problem of big money in politics: more money, less limits, more disclosure. Shapiro, who essentially served as a punching bag for the liberal crowd, was lambasted by the senators on the subcommittee. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked him if the Cato Institute’s connection to the Koch brothers made his testimony problematic.
And perhaps the most memorable part of the hearing was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) exchange with Shapiro. Whitehouse, who championed the recently defeated DISCLOSE Act through the Senate, shared an anecdote about a recent exchange he had with a U.S. service member returning from Afghanistan without both of his legs, lost to an improvised explosive device. He compared that young man’s sacrifice to the Koch brothers, who Republicans have evoked in protesting against further disclosure, claiming that billionaire donors will face harassment with more disclosure.
“If we can ask [our soldiers] to [go to Afghanistan], we can ask the Koch brothers to put up with some impolite blogging,” Whitehouse said, provoking a rare bit of applause in a Senate subcommittee hearing.
Watch the video below: