The next time you see a dollar bill that says “Stamp Money Out of Politics” or “Not to Be Used For Bribing Politicians,” don’t be confused. Stamping dollar bills with phrases such as these is part of a nationwide campaign that started this week to get money out of politics. The Stamp Stampede, started by Berkeley resident and founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream Ben Cohen, is “a petition on steroids” against the corrupting influence of money in our political system. We, the members of Common Cause of Berkeley, believe we have an obligation to confront this injustice as an affront to our democracy.
This issue garnered national attention in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and special interests can spend unlimited amounts of money “independently” of candidates in elections. This opened the floodgates for outside groups to spend unprecedented sums in the 2012 election, effectively drowning out the voices and interests of voters. In 2012, only 32 donors contributing to super PACS were able to outspend the 3.7 million small donors who raised $313 million for the Obama and Romney combined — this is not what democracy looks like.
And sadly, the situation could get even worse.
On Oct. 8, the Supreme Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case challenging standing campaign finance laws that limit the total an individual can donate to all federal candidates, party committees and PACs in a two-year election cycle.
Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, joined by the Republican National Committee, challenges these aggregate contribution limits, claiming they are a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech in politics. In doing so, he invokes the logic that was central to the Citizens United case: that money is speech.
This idea is not only dangerous but also false.
Take Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. In March, Blunt quietly inserted the Monsanto Protection Act into a last-minute spending bill, allowing growers to plant genetically modified seeds even when they had been deemed unsafe by the courts. Who donated $79,250 to Senator Blunt over the past 4 years? None other than GMO giant Monsanto Company, making it his fifth-largest contributor over that period.
Political contributions may not be blatant bribes. As Monsanto’s ability to influence Blunt makes clear, however, these contributions are too powerful to be considered true free speech. Politicians do whatever they can to stay in power. If contributions from a few wealthy groups are keeping them there, they will no longer represent the majority. That is corruption.
The passage of the Monsanto Protection Act also highlights the danger of eliminating aggregate contribution limits, as McCutcheon would like. Even if his influence over individual candidates remained limited, his general influence would explode. Get a few hundred like-minded McCutcheons together, and suddenly Congress would fit in their back pockets.
Here’s the bottom line: Research shows corporations and the ultra-wealthy have different policy priorities and political interests than the average working American. Their socioeconomic status lets them influence legislators and ballot initiatives with vast campaign contributions, skewing policy priorities away from the aggregate population and towards their own selfish priorities.
Luckily, there is a growing nationwide movement to overturn Citizens United and to rally against further attacks on democracy such as McCutcheon. More and more students are joining this movement and pressuring their student governments to officially take a stand against Citizens United by passing a resolution in opposition. UC Berkeley students voted in favor of a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United last spring during the ASUC elections, in addition to passing a resolution in support through the ASUC Senate last fall.
It is Common Cause of Berkeley’s goal to continue to spread awareness about this issue among students and also the broader community — to anyone who handles money. That is why we brought the Stamp Stampede to UC Berkeley. Each bill we stamped this week will circulate to an average of 875 people over the next two and a half years. Slowly but surely, we are growing the movement and sending the message that we will not tolerate a system that is of, by and for the wealthy elites. This is a movement that requires us all to be vocal. It requires us all to take a stand. It requires us all to demand the change that is necessary for society’s welfare and the very survival of our democracy.
Today, you can reject money in politics. Even if you missed the stamps, spread the word and join the stampede.
Emma Rosenbaum, Morgan Prentice and Woody Little are members of Common Cause of Berkeley.