'Citizens United' Critics Fight Money With Money Four years after the controversial Supreme Court ruling, the meaning of campaign finance reform depends on whom you ask. But those advocating for stronger laws are organizing a long campaign of their own to reduce the political influence of big money.
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'Citizens United' Critics Fight Money With Money

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'Citizens United' Critics Fight Money With Money

'Citizens United' Critics Fight Money With Money

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Some other news. Critics of big money in politics are trying again to reduce its influence. Four years ago, the Supreme Court cleared the way for new unlimited and often undisclosed spending in federal elections. This election year, groups using that money for attack ads are already at it. But the superPACs and social welfare organizations are under attack themselves.

Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Advocates of stronger campaign finance laws have been taking it on the chin. They're 0-for-6 at the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. And there's no consensus in Congress on what if anything should be done.

But Phil Radford says polls show rising anger as Americans see money's influence in Washington.

PHIL RADFORD: And I think that outrage will translate into people, district by district, asking their members of Congress: What are they doing to make sure America is a democracy again?

OVERBY: Radford is a co-founder of The Democracy Initiative, a consortium led by Greenpeace USA, where he is executive director, plus the Communications Workers of America, NAACP and Sierra Club. The Democracy Initiative is active on voters' rights, and it runs Fix The Senate Now, a campaign that's already helped to lower parliamentary roadblocks in the Senate.

But even efforts to control money take money.

NICK PENNIMAN: Our central insight is that this fight has been chronically underfunded for way too many years.

OVERBY: This is Nick Penniman. He's director of the Fund for the Republic, a tax-exempt group working to recruit more philanthropists to the cause. Penniman says he shows them a five-point battle plan.

PENNIMAN: Unless we can increase the number of philanthropists donating to the fight for reform, we're not going to be able to ever have the financial power that we need to create a real surge.

OVERBY: His goal: $40 million to raise and then distribute in grants. No small sum. He calls it ironic but necessary. Or futile, which is David Keatings perspective. He's on the other side at the Center for Competitive Politics. It advocates for fewer limits and no new disclosure requirements.

Keating says polls over time show that Americans are leery of politicians who want to regulate political speech, including political money. He also says the Citizens United ruling seems to benefit liberals and conservatives alike.

DAVID KEATING: I think more people are getting used to the new system, the new freedoms that we have from recent Supreme Court decisions.

OVERBY: Wendy Weiser is looking at different poll numbers. She's head of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. She says Citizens United and other recent decisions get little public support.

WENDY WEISER: When there's such a wide gap between public perceptions of constitutional values and the court's decision-making, those decisions, you know, are ultimately not sustainable.

OVERBY: And there are lawyers working up new legal theories. One target is a section of the Citizens United ruling that shrank the legal concept of political corruption. Essentially Citizens United says money only corrupts politicians who do favors for donors in return for contributions. Zephyr Teachout at Fordham University Law School says that's radically different from the Founding Fathers' view of corruption.

She says they discussed it a lot, but in terms of corrupting the institution and the system, not the individual lawmakers.

ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: The Founding Fathers didn't even talk about criminal bribery or criminal law as a way to protect against corruption. What they were concerned about is all the different ways in which money and power could influence people, representatives in particular, to be unfaithful to their constituents.

OVERBY: David Keating, not surprisingly, doesn't buy it.

KEATING: I think if the Founders looked at the types of remedies being proposed by people who support these, I think, basically crackpot legal theories, they would laugh.

OVERBY: But that theory about the Founding Fathers is just one of many under development, perhaps coming soon to a federal courthouse near you. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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