This past week marked the seventh anniversary of Citizens United, the catastrophic decision by the United States Supreme Court that declared “money is speech” and in so doing exposed our politics to a deluge of special interest and lobbyist cash.
Citizens United told the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations that politics could be their plaything; that Democracy could be bought, for the right price. By removing any limits on the amount of money that could be spent on elections, the decision put our politics on sale to the highest bidder.
Make no mistake, corporations, lobbyists and Super Political Action Committees don’t donate out of the charitable goodness of their hearts. They don’t give out millions of dollars because they’re friends with the politicians whose pockets they line. They do it because they believe it will buy them access, influence and, perhaps, a vote. This isn’t just a problem in Washington D.C.
Here in Maine, between 2014 and 2015, more than 400 companies hired 229 lobbyists and spent nearly $5 million to lobby state legislators. That’s insane. But that dollar amount pales in comparison to the amount of financial contributions that flows from these same lobbyists and the groups that hire them directly to legislator’s political action committees and campaigns.
Legislators today are allowed to take money through their PACs and campaign committees directly from the very industries they are supposed to be regulating.
Whether these contributions cause lawmakers to vote in the lobbyists’ favor or not, their very existence creates a cloud of uncertainty around the legislative process. They create an appearance of corruption that undermines our democratic institutions.
It doesn’t surprise me that the public has waning faith in our democratic institutions when lawmakers who sit on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which oversees telecommunication regulations, can accept money from companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. If that’s not a direct conflict of interest, I don’t know what would be. That’s not the only example either. There is an entire network of essentially completely legalized bribery we’ve allowed to take place.
The idea that our political leaders can be financially influenced adds fuel to the fires of distrust in government, and casts doubt on whether our elected officials really have our back. It creates unnecessary questions about exactly whose interests are being represented in the legislative process. While this might not seem like the number issue around the dinner table, we will never be able to tackle the long term systemic issues facing our state if we don’t have a government that is fighting for our best interests on main street.
To restore public trust, legislators should be banned from accepting donations from lobbyists. Which is why I’ve introduced “An Act To Limit the Influence of Lobbyists By Expanding the Prohibition on Accepting Political Contributions” to do just that.
Currently, lobbyists can give legislators contributions right up to the opening bell of the legislative session and again immediately upon adjournment. This is referred to as an “in-session” ban on contributions. My bill simply expands the lobbyist ban on political contributions to the entire year, preventing undue influence on our state officials from our legislators to the Governor himself. Other states have passed similar legislation and it has been successful. Now it’s time for Maine to pass it.
This builds upon the successful legislation I put forward last session that closed a loophole that previously allowed Clean Elections candidates to operate and fundraise through political action committees. The fact we were able to close that loophole with bipartisan support demonstrates that renewed public pressure and the national debate over money in politics is making a difference at the state house in Maine. Reforming the system takes time, but we have a solid foundation to work from.
Ultimately, we need Congress to overturn Citizens United, and we can’t lose focus of this long-term objective. But we can make incremental reforms to our campaign finance system here in Maine to weed out the perception of corruption and fundamentally restore a sense of trust and credibility back into the institution of government.
Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington, and Buxton. He served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates at , Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco