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Local solution to the growing influence of wealth in politics

I-1329 proposes constitutional amendment to denounce money as speech

Wealth inequality is the highest it has been since the Great Depression. Starting in the mid-1970’s the income of the wealthiest 1% of Americans began to skyrocket as the earnings of the middle and lower classes stagnated. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has concluded that, “Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation—an increase in income of $973,100 per household—compared to increases of 25 percent ($11,200 per household) for the middle fifth of households and 16 percent ($2,400 per household) for the bottom fifth.”

The problem has accelerated in the wake of our current economic recession. According to UC Berkeley Economics Professor Emmanuel Saez’s 2013 report Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States, “After decades of stability in the post-war period, the top decile share (of income) has increased dramatically over the last twenty-five years and has now regained its pre-war level. Indeed, the top decile share in 2012 is equal to 50.4 percent, a level higher than any other year since 1917.”

This ever-increasing income inequality is a symptom of the larger issue of unbalanced wealth distribution. While income refers to money received through wages and investments wealth includes assets, such as property and investments. Wealth is self-perpetuating, income is not. In 1973 the 0.1% wealthiest Americans owned roughly 8% of national wealth, in 2013 they possessed above 20%, their biggest share since the beginning of the great depression. It is no coincidence that the blight of wealth inequality has increased lockstep with the growing influence of the wealthy in the political process.

In 1971 the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) was passed, requiring greater disclosure of federal campaign contributions. The Senate amended the act in 1974, adding limits to campaign contributions by individuals, political parties, and political action committees (PAC’s). This amendment also created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce these new requirements. James L Buckley, a Senator in the conservative minority that voted against the 1974 reforms, and several of his cohorts brought the case to the Supreme Court in 1976, arguing that placing limits on campaign expenditures violates the rights of wealthy candidates who want to bankroll their own campaigns. In Buckley v Valeo, the Supreme Court sided with Buckley on the grounds that limits on expenditures curtailed the right to free speech, qualifying political contributions as a form of free speech. This overturned the FECA’s campaign expenditure limits while retaining campaign contribution limits. In simpler terms the money that can be donated to a political campaign became unlimited, but caps remained on the amount one individual or group can contribute. The campaign finance reforms of the 1970’s have greatly increased the power of money in the political process. This trend continues today and allows the wealthy to influence democratically elected representatives to pass measures that predominantly favor their interests, hence the massive income gains of the wealthiest 1% over the last 35 years.

The cost of national campaigns has been rising at an exponential rate as more money is poured into the political process year after year. For example, the amount spent by all candidates running for the House of Representatives in 1976 was $60,046,006, by 1994 that number was $346,189,285, and in 2012 it was up to $923,555,204. The upward trend in campaign costs is similar for senate and presidential elections. In 2012 there was a total of $6,285,557,223 spent between both houses congressional races and the presidential election, compared to the roughly $653,201,966 spent in 1996. Over the same period the contributions political candidates received from PAC’s has increased rapidly; in 1978 PAC’s spent $34.1 million on the election cycle, in 2012 their money accounted for $425.5 million.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, further exacerbated the influence of corporate wealth in the political process. The Citizens United ruling bars the federal government from restricting how much money a corporation or individual can put towards independent expenditures in political campaigns. This ruling builds on the assumption put forth by Buckley v Valeo that money constitutes speech and extends the first amendment right to free speech to corporations, treating corporations as people by granting them the same rights as living breathing humans. Allowing corporations unlimited independent expenditures does not allow them to contribute unlimited funds to individual candidates or political parties. However, they can now dump as much money as they want into the political process by running advertisements and taking other measures to endorse or denounce a candidate or position so long as they do not coordinate their efforts with a specific candidate, their campaign or a political party.

The Citizens United decision gave way to the creation of Super PAC’s, which may collect unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and other organizations to be used on independent expenditures. During the 2012 election cycle Super PAC’s raised a total of $828,224,700 and spent $609,417,654. Data revealed by the FEC on March 25, 2013 shows that 57% of the money contributed to the election cycle by Super PAC’s came from the 102 wealthiest donors, who spent a combined total of $471,545,650. The wealthiest 1% of super PAC donors, 216 individuals, contributed $560,091,896. The 2012 presidential election was the most costly in US history, and Super PAC’s spent more money on it than the campaigns themselves.

The influence of wealth in the political process has become so extreme that a recent study by Princeton professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page concluded that, “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little to no independent influence.” By this definition the United States is an oligarchy ruled by a small economic elite, not a democracy where all citizens have an equal voice in the development and implementation of law, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Economist Thomas Pinketty argues in his groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty First Century that there is an inherent rift between capitalism and democracy. Indeed the struggle to reign in the undue influence of self-perpetuating wealth on our democratic system may be the most pressing issue of our time (or at the very least a substantial roadblock to addressing other impending catastrophes such as environmental collapse), and the democratic process, as corrupted by big money as it is, remains the most powerful tool we have to make our voices heard. One may argue the right to vote is devolving into a symbolic sham gesture. If that is the case, it is of the utmost importance that we cling to that sham with an iron grip and do everything we can to milk the little we are given into as much as we can make it.

The pervasive influence of wealth in politics is stronger on a federal level than it is locally. For this reason working within our communities to make our voices heard is the most effective strategy we have at our disposal. The trick is to get each community across the country to chant in unison for the common good. To that end 16 states have already passed measures that formally renounce Citizens United and the influence of wealth in the political process. With proposed ballot initiative 1329 Washington State has a chance to add our voice to the growing chorus. Section 1 of the initiative measure states:

This act declares that the people of Washington State support amending the US Constitution to reduce the influence of money on elections and government policy. The amendment would overturn all U.S. Supreme Court decisions granting constitutional rights to corporations and other special interests, and would provide for regulation and disclosure of political contributions and spending, in order to ensure that no person or artificial legal entity gains undue influence over government as a result of money.

I-1329 goes on to define people as living, breathing human beings and corporations as artificial legal entities separate and apart from humans. Furthermore, human beings have first amendment rights, and political spending is not a form of free speech. Corporations are subject to government regulation and do not have constitutional protections. Section 3 of the initiative, Policy and Promotion, calls for:

Immediate action by the current and future Washington State Congressional delegations to propose a joint resolution for an amendment to the United States Constitution clarifying that:
• The rights of people protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.
• All citizens should have an equal voice in the political process, and no person or artificial legal entity should gain undue influence over government as a result of financial resources. Federal, state, and local governments must be fully empowered to regulate all political contributions and expenditures to meet this goal.
• All political contributions and expenditures must be publicly disclosed in a full and timely manner.

A proposed constitutional amendment is sent to the states for ratification when two-thirds of both houses of congress deem an amendment necessary. For an amendment to be ratified it has to be approved by three quarters of the states legislatures, making up 38 states. A national convention to propose amendments to the constitution may also be called if two-thirds state legislatures, 34 states, submit applications. All 27 amendments to the Constitution thus far have been sent to states for ratification; a national convention has never been called. As such I-1329, like the other state resolutions, calls for congress to send an amendment to the states for ratification. Collectively these proposals send a strong, necessary message to the federal government. If enough pressure is placed on congress they may end up having to propose a campaign finance amendment out of sheer political necessity.

As our country continues to suffer due to the power wealth wields in the political process we can take solace in the fact that national change starts in our own community. This was recently demonstrated by Seattle becoming the first US city to enact a $15 an hour minimum wage in the wake the Senate’s failure raise it from $7.25 to $10.10. Local grassroots activism is also the reason same sex marriage, first passed by Massachusetts in 2004, is a legally recognized right in 19 states today. Once individual communities make a positive change the ripple cannot be contained. This is why it is imperative that Washington passes initiative 1329. The first step is to get the measure on the November 4 ballot, which requires obtaining 300,000 signatures by June 25. To learn more about the petition, including where you can sign it and other ways you can help our state usher in I-1329 please visit

Jordan Beaudry has a pen in his pocket and a passion for social justice.

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