WASHINGTON – President Obama set off a populist firestorm about three years ago when he denounced the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
The president charged in his 2010 State of the Union message that the judges had opened “the floodgates” to unlimited campaign contributions, while many of the judges squirmed in the front row.
Since the address, several states and hundreds of municipalities, including Buffalo and Orchard Park, have passed symbolic resolutions urging Congress to begin the work of passing a constitutional amendment repealing Citizens United.
The trouble is that the key player in this cumbersome process – Congress – isn't much interested. To amend, Congress must pass a resolution that would be approved by 38 states. Forget the Republican-controlled House, for whom these obscene cascades of money appear to be tailor-made.
As of Friday, Las Vegas gambling czar Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were listed as having contributed $70 million to Republican candidates. Prior to Citizens, they would have been limited to $10,000 apiece.
It is in the Democratic Senate where a perplexing fog of disinterest holds sway. This is no longer your parents' Democratic Party. You see, since the president's courageous speech, he and the organization have learned to use these new gaping holes in financial restraint that the post-Watergate campaign laws set up.
The Obama campaign created its own Citizens-enabled super PAC, Priorities USA, which spent $70 million this year backing Obama and attacking Republican primary hopefuls, mainly Mitt Romney.
CQ Moneyline, a tracking service, so far found that Republican-oriented super PACs gave $357 million in the campaign. However, Democratic super PACs spent $208 million. This is a 10th of what was spent overall, but professional politicians know that what is put in the pot late in the game counts a lot. Consider the $313,000 the Karl Rove-led American Crossroads super PAC spent to help defeat Rep. Kathy Hochul, D-Hamburg.
In the Senate, it is not a Democrat who is working overtime to overturn Citizens, but Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont. His bill to repeal Citizens is languishing in the Judiciary Committee, headed by a fellow Vermonter, Democrat Patrick Leahy. After the Vermont Legislature called for repeal, Leahy held a hearing on campaign finance and Citizens last fall. Leahy's committee, however, did not move Sanders' bill to the floor.
Asked why not, a Sanders spokesman said crisply, “You should take that up with Sen. Leahy.” Leahy's office did not respond directly to the Sanders question, but stressed Leahy pushed hard for passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would add a measure of transparency to the unlimited money now spent under the court's ruling. Senate Republicans blocked DISCLOSE with a filibuster threat.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-ranking Democrat on Judiciary, did not respond to an email sent to his office for comment on Sanders' bill. In New York, a repeal resolution by Assemblyman Jim Brennan, D-Brooklyn, died in committee.
Some political pundits think the Citizens decision did not play as critical a role in the election as was feared. This is because Obama won, and there is a misperception that super PAC money is overwhelmingly Republican. This misses the point. Big money protects the incumbency and encourages gridlock. It isolates Congress from the average voter.
President Obama announced Friday he will accept unlimited corporate donations to his inauguration, reversing an earlier position.
The indifference of Congress lends legitimacy to efforts of the liberal Moveon.org, Occupy and MovetoAmend groups, which believe this campaign for repeal must move to the streets.