Once Ruled By Washington Insiders, Campaign Finance Reform Goes Grass Roots More than 1,000 participants have pledged to let themselves be arrested when the protests start next Monday in Washington, D.C.
NPR logo

Once Ruled By Washington Insiders, Campaign Finance Reform Goes Grass Roots

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/473005036/473005037" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Once Ruled By Washington Insiders, Campaign Finance Reform Goes Grass Roots

Once Ruled By Washington Insiders, Campaign Finance Reform Goes Grass Roots

Once Ruled By Washington Insiders, Campaign Finance Reform Goes Grass Roots

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/473005036/473005037" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Members of the Democracy Spring coalition set out Saturday, trudging past Independence Hall in Philadelphia on their way to Washington, D.C. Peter Overby/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Peter Overby/NPR

Members of the Democracy Spring coalition set out Saturday, trudging past Independence Hall in Philadelphia on their way to Washington, D.C.

Peter Overby/NPR

It was raining lightly when marchers of the Democracy Spring coalition set out Saturday, trudging past Independence Hall in Philadelphia on their way south toward Washington, D.C.

"I came on the train. Two days. Slept in the train station last night," Miram Kashia said, laughing. A self-proclaimed climate action warrior, she traveled from North Liberty, Iowa. She blamed political money's influence for blocking action on the climate, and added, "I'm retired but it's a full time job for me, being an activist."

The issue of money in politics is hotter this year than in any presidential election since Watergate. Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both call for public funding designed to give small donors more power.

And campaign finance reform has gone grass roots. Since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010 — the ruling that let corporations and unions spend to promote or attack candidates — there have been marches, petitions, municipal declarations and other protests around the country.

What caught Linda Battista's attention was the government's rescue of Wall Street, and the lack of legal consequences for Wall Street's big donors. "The bailout was the straw that broke the camel's back," the Philadelphia resident said. "Billions of dollars that wealthy people are just sitting on, while cuts are being made to schools and everybody else is just dealing with austerity."

In other words, it wasn't the issue of political money that got the marchers headed to Washington. It was the way the money affects, or is perceived to affect, elected officials.

"Citizens United was the best thing for the reform movement since Richard Nixon. What it did was rally people," Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig said. "The democracy was already dead. The Supreme Court might have shot the body, but the body was already cold." Peter Overby/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Peter Overby/NPR

"Citizens United was the best thing for the reform movement since Richard Nixon. What it did was rally people," Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig said. "The democracy was already dead. The Supreme Court might have shot the body, but the body was already cold."

Peter Overby/NPR

Upcoming protests on Capitol Hill protests may be the most dramatic example yet.

Democracy Spring includes more than 100 liberal organizations working on environmental, justice and other issues. More than 1,000 participants have pledged to let themselves be arrested when the protests start next Monday. The following week, a second wave of activists arrives in another coalition, called Democracy Awakening.

On Saturday, about 200 people rallied in the rain before the march. Kai Newkirk, the head of 99 Rise, the group organizing Democracy Spring, told the soggy crowd that members of Congress can't tackle the big issues until they stop taking money that's contributed to protect the status quo.

"It's not every day that people proclaim and promise that they're going to sit in and non-violently, peacefully occupy the seat of their government," Newkirk said.

Congress regards campaign finance as an issue best handled by a few experts, the easier to be ignored by everyone else. But lawmakers may have missed a change in public opinion.

Some polls show people agreeing with the system's critics. Clinton and Sanders both campaign on the issue. At a Wisconsin rally, Sanders declared, "What this campaign is about is talking about a corrupt campaign finance system."

Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, said it all depends on how a pollster frames the questions.

"You have a most-important-problem question, where campaign finance gets really low, single digit scores," she said. "And then you might have, well, what's wrong with elections, what's wrong with election campaigns, and then you go, whoa, all the money in it. "

By now, Atkeson said, "this is not an issue that's going to go away, because it's attacking people at all of their levels of government, it's becoming a part of the national dialogue."

The visionary of the new, expanded reform movement is another professor, Larry Lessig of Harvard Law. He's written a book about political money, organized other grass-roots groups, even tried running for president on the issue last year.

At the march, Lessig said the goal is not to undo Citizens United.

"Citizens United was the best thing for the reform movement since Richard Nixon. What it did was rally people," he said. But big donors already had too much sway, he said: "The democracy was already dead. The Supreme Court might have shot the body, but the body was already cold."

The solution, according to Lessig and other progressive advocates: Government-funded vouchers for small donors, to give them more clout. Both Clinton and Sanders have endorsed the system.

"That is the single most important change that could happen," Lessig said. "And in 10 years it's gone from being impossible to imagine to being conventional for both of them."

Actress Gaby Hoffmann gave her short speech in the rain. She connected the weather to the movement's goal.

"It's incredibly difficult, actually," she said of the reform effort. "And I think this little bit of gray sky and rain is here to remind us that it's not going to be easy."