We need a constitutional amendment on money in politics

Jeff Clements
The Fulcrum (TNS)
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) walks to the Senate floor after speaking to reporters after meeting privately with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

"We're under an avalanche. No one can hear us, and we can't hear each other."

That's my friend, David Trahan. He's a logger in Waldoboro, Maine. He's also a former Republican senator in the state Legislature and leads the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. Trahan and SAM represent the interests of 300,000 Maine people who hunt, fish and trap in the state's vast woods, rivers and lakes. SAM is also Maine's leading advocate in defense of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Under an avalanche. Trahan is talking about the 2020 U.S. Senate race between incumbent Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger, Sarah Gideon. In a mostly rural state with a small population, billionaires, corporations, some big unions and various front groups from Washington, D.C., and a few other cities spent more than $200 million to bury Maine voters in a relentless sleaze bomb attack of division, disinformation and fear. The dirty game was completely bipartisan and a snapshot of what Americans in every state are facing. Indeed, at $200 million, Maine did not even make it into the top five of big-money Senate elections.

Trahan has become a leader in American Promise's constitutional amendment campaign to fix this problem for good. Like most Americans, he wants an amendment to the U.S Constitution so we can have even-handed limits on how much money anyone can contribute or spend in elections.

Trahan was glad that Collins was reelected. He has supported her for a long time. But his candidate's win does not make him any less concerned about the future of America without this American Promise amendment in the Constitution. And he has high hopes that Collins can help make it happen, and, he says, for good reason.

Reformer: Collins has long believed that the power of a few people to use their money to control elections violates the equal rights of all Americans.

She was a leader in the passage of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that limited the ability of billionaires, corporations, unions, foreign governments and other entities to run big money into elections through super PACs and "dark money" channels.

This bipartisan law now is defunct only because the Supreme Court struck it down — as well as many more state and federal anti-corruption laws — by fabricating a kooky new theory about the First Amendment. Corporate and big-money political operatives sold the court an idea that those with a lot of money — whether they are human beings, global corporations, big government unions, or dark money super PACs — have a "free speech" right to spend as much money as they want to get control of our government and officeholders — no matter the cost to other Americans.

Money is free speech? Corporations are people? So say the justices on the Supreme Court (none of whom has ever run for even local office, and few of whom have ever talked with a jury of Americans in a local or state courthouse).

Americans aren't buying the "money is speech" experiment, and for a simple reason. After a decade in the lab of American democracy, the experiment has been a catastrophe for the country. No one who can't afford the new price of admission for "speech" is feeling represented, respected or even connected with the elected politicians and government that results from the big-money attack game. Almost all of us now are "under the avalanche."

Early in her career, Collins put the counter-argument to this "money is free speech" theory. "Why should (the big money) matter, we are asked by those all too eager to equate freedom of speech with freedom to spend. It should matter because political equality is the essence of democracy, and an electoral system driven by big money is one lacking in political equality."

It's about freedom: How money is used in elections goes to the heart of Americans' equal rights. All Americans, no matter how rich or how poor, have a right to participate in elections, be represented, have an opportunity to be heard, and to debate issues and candidates. These rights cannot be sold or bought because they belong to everyone. As Trahan says, "Money can't buy the deep love and passion we feel for the freedom our Constitution guarantees."

So, it's about equality, but as Trahan shows, it's about freedom, too. Our freedom; the freedom of every American. When only the richest individuals, the biggest corporations, or the most powerful unions or special interests are free, no one is free.

Freedom and equality. Too often we think of these as in opposition to each other. But freedom is our freedom, or it's no freedom. Freedom is not the same as individualism; instead, freedom follows from our equality as citizens and human beings in society, together.

If we are equal in the eyes of our Creator and our Constitution, our own freedoms must be reciprocal, and in relationship to each other. Freedom exists when citizens, all of whom have equal rights as each one has, can debate, argue and compete, over time, election after election, decision after decision, in the various perspectives of what make sound laws and healthy norms in our society.

In contrast to the justices, Collins learned this lesson in her Caribou, Maine, birthplace near the Canadian border, and over a long career in competitive politics and debate.

She and all New Englanders are familiar with nearly four centuries of local democracy in the town meeting, where all the community's citizens have a right to debate and together to decide budgets and priorities; crime and safety, environmental, zoning and business regulations; and everything else.

Collins once pointed to this experience to explain all you need to know about the First Amendment and money in politics. "Attend a town meeting," she said, "and you will observe an element of true democracy: People with more money do not get to speak longer and louder than people with less money."

The constitutional amendment favored by Trahan and so many Americans is advancing rapidly, with 22 states so far calling on Congress to act, and versions of amendment language competing in Congress to reach the two-thirds threshold. Legal experts, business and civic leaders, health care and faith leaders are joining the campaign. And a nonpartisan and diverse panel of experts convened by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has endorsed the American Promise effort and urged ratification of this constitutional amendment no later than July 4, 2026.

July 4, 2026. What more fit way to honor America's hard, bumpy and fractious 250-year journey to freedom, equality and constitutional democracy than the ratification of a For Our Freedom Amendment so we can dig us out of the avalanche, and renew our promise?

— Jeff Clements is the president of American Promise, which advocates for amending the Constitution to allow more federal and state regulation of money in politics. He was previously an assistant Massachusetts attorney general.

— The Fulcrum covers what's making democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our governing systems. Sign up for our newsletter at The Fulcrum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our governing systems.