Derek Cressman is a veteran of more than 20 years in the campaign finance reform movement. He has long been an advocate of a constitutional amendment to change how campaigns are financed and to elevate the voice of everyday, non-rich American voters. Now the problem is more urgent than ever. Citizens United and a series of other decisions by the Roberts Supreme Court have rolled back much of the progress for which Cressman and his colleagues worked so hard.
Nonetheless, he remains hopeful. Cressman has a new book out, When Money Talks. In its introduction, he writes that the book is aimed at “those who already know that American politics is broken and who want to repair it.” He talks about the movement to repair our democracy, touching on its history, the next steps and how you can help.
This week, we spoke with Derek Cressman to discuss his book, the debate roiling around the proposed constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and some of the challenges facing reformers. Our conversation had been edited for length and clarity.
The book’s goal is to explore strategies for elevating everyday people’s voices in the political process and for limiting the influence of big money in politics. Can you outline some of the strategies that are in the book?
Derek Cressman: The first thing that the book tries to focus on is that we need to confront our Supreme Court. A lot of the tools in the book are how you go about doing that.
I think the place to start is that people know we have a problem with money in politics but not everyone knows that that problem was created by design, by ideologues on our Supreme Court. So it starts there and then offers several different ways that citizens can check and balance a runaway Supreme Court.
You write that the book is for those who already know that politics is broken and want to repair it. And generally, when we look at polls, we find that people do agree that politics is broken but in practice, fewer people feel motivated to step up and do something. How do you think reformers can do a better job of getting people involved?
Derek Cressman: I think people are motivated but they don’t know how we can win. And in part, some reformers and a lot of academics and media pundits basically tell them there’s no point in trying and I think that’s precisely the wrong message. It’s unhelpful and it’s incorrect. But we’re being told by some that even though 80 percent of the country thinks that the Supreme Court got it wrong in Citizens United, that it’s beyond our power to correct that through amending the Constitution. And to me, just to take a step back from that, that’s basically giving up on the idea of America — we can no longer govern ourselves even when we have a national consensus around something.
I think that reformers need to do a better job of not only describing the problem — which we’ve done a great job of, [but] which tends to make people cynical and skeptical — [and] instead or in addition providing the tools for how to address that problem and how to rein in a runaway Supreme Court.
You’ve been a longtime supporter of the idea of a constitutional amendment to regulate money in politics. Why?
Derek Cressman: I started working on money in politics issues in 1995 in Washington, DC, and I was working with the Public Interest Research Group [PIRG] passing ballot measures to limit campaign contributions. And I was then stunned to see several courts throwing those out despite Supreme Court precedents that upheld limits on contributions. And it just became evident to me at an early time that if courts could willy-nilly disregard their own precedents and start making policy from the bench on something as fundamental as how we run our elections, then we had not just a money in politics problem but a checks and balances problem that needed to be addressed through standing up to the court through a constitutional amendment. So that’s something I’d been focused on long before Citizens United.
There’s this idea that overturning Citizens United, or limiting campaign contributions in some way, would be abridging speech and would affect what The New York Times could say. Ted Cruz memorably claimed it would affect what Saturday Night Live writers could write. How do you rebut that argument?
Derek Cressman: They’re conflating that idea of free speech with paid speech: 30-second TV commercials and junk mailings. There’s money involved in both cases, right? It takes money to produce The New York Times. But the question is does the money come from the consumer who buys The New York Times, as opposed to is it coming from the speaker who is in essence paying an advertising fee to force somebody else to listen to speech that they didn’t seek out in the first place. That is the key distinction between advertising and the news or the media. And it’s a distinction that folks like Senator Cruz completely gloss over.
In the book you also point out that we have a long history of reasonable limits on freedom of speech. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Derek Cressman: I don’t think it limits our freedom of speech but it limits the duration of our speech and the volume of our speech.
The book begins with a story at a Richmond, California, city council meeting where somebody was escorted out by the police because he had exceeded his one-minute time limit on speaking. And we’re so accustomed to limits on our speech in lots of forms that it’s become second nature. When you go through kindergarten you learn that you can’t just shout in the classroom. You have to raise your hand and be called upon by the teacher. Well, that’s a limiting of the duration of your speech, the timing of your speech and we do that to facilitate speech so that we can hear each other. Because if everybody talks at the same time in a classroom on in an auditorium, nobody can be heard.
So in fact, we protect the freedom of speech by limiting the amount that any one speaker can dominate and outshout anyone else. Other examples I point to in the book are page limits on Supreme Court briefs or time limits at Supreme Court oral arguments. Each side usually gets thirty minutes. We have time limits on the floor of Congress on how much time a member of Congress can speak about any type of bill. And we put those limits in place precisely to ensure that there is a robust and balanced debate where we get to hear from all sides of an issue, not get drowned out by one side.
In theory, this is an issue that one would expect to be more bipartisan, but in practice it seems to be one that progressive activists take up. Your book tells a number of stories of big money Republicans backed by Wall Street interests who get elected to office ignoring or not talking about issues that are important to the base. How can reformers better pitch this issue to conservative activists like tea partiers?
Derek Cressman: I think there’s a lot of evidence that conservative activists agree with progressives and independents and all across the political spectrum that money in politics is a problem. What I think has happened is that the powerful interests, corporations and billionaires, have influence in both political parties, but particularly right now the Republican politicians in Washington, DC, have chosen to ignore the wishes of their own voters on this issue. And that’s a solution that Republican voters need to take up with their own candidates. That’s not a solution that reformers are going to be able to make come about, it falls to the voters themselves.
It seems we’re seeing some of that in this election.
Derek Cressman: Well, we’re certainly seeing signs of it. I think Donald Trump’s tapping into a lot of different anger out there in the electorate but part of that anger is aimed at a Washington establishment that voters on both sides of the aisle think is out of touch with ordinary people, and the reason it’s out of touch is that politicians spend most of their time talking to wealthy people asking them for money or talking to the lobbyists that wealthy people have hired. So of course they’re out of touch, and I think that’s fueling anger on both sides of the aisle in the presidential race. And look at what happened to Eric Cantor, a big money, powerful politician unseated by angry activists within his own party. I think we’ll continue to see more of that on both the Democratic and Republican sides and that’s what needs to happen.
To that point, I’ve seen a number of articles arguing that the examples of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump show a shift: In Sanders’ case, he’s financed by many small donors; Donald Trump is financed by a billionaire, but he’s the billionaire. Folks argue that this could show a shift toward super PACs becoming less important. What do you make of that line of argument?
Derek Cressman: I don’t think that’s correct at all. Super PACs are keeping a number of candidates alive on the Republican side who would have dropped out long ago if they did not exist. It’s very rare, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, I would say, that you have a grassroots candidate that even gets presented to the voters. And while it’s great that we’re seeing that at the presidential level, there’s only a handful of congressional races where that will be the case. In most congressional races voters get to choose between Big Money Candidate A and Big Money Candidate B. So to point to the failure of any particular super PAC or super PAC–backed candidate to mean that super PACs don’t matter, I think is just complete rhetoric, really.
I wanted to ask you about a high court decision in California, where you’re from: The Supreme Court there recently cleared the way for voters to weigh in, via ballot measure, on what they think Congress should do on Citizens United. Do you see that same sort of effort spreading to other states?
Derek Cressman: I do. This is a huge development and it’s one of the things I write a lot about in the book. America’s kind of forgotten about this tool known as voter instructions whereby voters have a measure on the ballot that allows them to specifically charge their elected officials with taking action on their behalf. It was widely used in this country over a hundred years ago. And it was something that I started working to revive in 2012 when I was at Common Cause. We supported voter instruction measures in Montana and Colorado that both passed by margins of 3:1. So now we see California taking this on in this very significant ruling by the California Supreme Court that this is a completely legitimate tool for voters to use. And at about the same time we had voters in Washington state turning in signatures seeking to place an instruction measure on their ballot. So I think 2016 could be a very big year, certainly if you have the most populous state in the country as well as Washington state and perhaps others. It can send a very loud signal both to members of Congress but also to the Supreme Court itself.
There are two arguments I often hear against dealing with Citizens United through a constitutional amendment. The first is that it would be very hard to pass. The second is that once passed, it might be imperfect and then difficult to alter. Do you share either of those concerns?
Derek Cressman: Constitutional amendments should be hard to pass. They should only pass in cases where you have a supermajority of the country strongly in favor, but that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in here, with 80 percent of the country in agreement that money is not speech and corporations are not people. So to abandon the idea that a supermajority of 80 percent cannot amend our own constitution, I think, is to abandon the idea of self-government itself. While self-government may be difficult at times, it’s a lot preferable to the alternatives of oligarchy or monarchy or autocracy.
And sure — we’re going to overturn Citizens United with words. Those words will either be in a court ruling or they’ll be in a constitutional amendment. Those words will not be perfect. I have a chapter in the book called “Magic Words.” So they won’t be perfect, they won’t be magic. Each generation of Americans is going to have to interpret those words and implement those words just as we do with our current first amendment and fourteenth amendment and entire constitution, which is not perfect. And yet, we must take that document and take those words and put them into implementation to govern ourselves and this is how we do it. So to require perfection of any set of words, whether it be a court ruling or a constitutional amendment, is really just an excuse for inaction, which at this juncture is unacceptable.
I believe that all of the Democratic presidential candidates have said at this point that they support an amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Derek Cressman: They have all said that they would support an amendment. Interestingly you don’t need the president’s vote to make an amendment.
Also significantly, they have said that they would base their Supreme Court appointments on a nominee to the court’s positions on Citizens United and whether or not they think the court got it right when it said that unlimited campaign spending is free speech. So we’re seeing some leadership from presidential candidates, more so than we have ever seen, so that’s a sign of progress. But I don’t believe this is something that citizens can leave up to any president. This is a challenge that we need to take upon ourselves. The executive branch and the legislative branch do have a role in checking and balancing the judicial branch, which has gotten out of whack here, but ultimately all three of those branches are subservient to we the people and it’s time that we rouse ourselves into a collective action to set things straight, just as we have during other crises throughout our history.
You ran in the Democratic primary to become secretary of state in California, and you mention in the book that you started to get into the beginning of the campaign financing process and found that the amount of money you had raised was integral in determining who would agree to endorse your campaign. Did that change your views on these issues at all, or did you learn anything new that you didn’t know before?
Derek Cressman: Sure, parts of it were more encouraging than I might have thought. I had been an outsider, nonpartisan reform advocate for my whole career and I tended to have a jaded view of political party bosses and insiderism and whatnot and I was pleasantly surprised at how much traction I was able to get within the Democratic party and voters here in California. So I think in some way, reformers have done a disservice to ourselves by explaining that the system is rigged and that tends to make both voters and potential candidates opt out of the system instead of running into it, which is what we all need to do.
But the example about endorsements, that was something that I hadn’t realized before. I know that money plays a role in ensuring which candidates get heard through running TV advertisements and things like that. but it’s really the case that individual voters and endorsing organizations and even to a large extent newspaper editorial boards, they want to be with a winner. Everybody wants to be with a winner. But we all know the pervasive role that money plays. So when making endorsements, it was quite clear to me that a lot of organizations simply looked at the money that different candidates had, and used that to figure out who would win and decided that they wanted to get on that train. And that’s a way of organizations ensuring that they’ll have some access to elected officials. So it’s a smart policy for them. I’m not faulting them for doing it. But it’s yet one of the many unseen ways that money plays a huge role in our political process.
What would you advise that our readers do at this point? If they’re concerned about big money in politics, what are two or three steps they can take to start correcting the problem?
Derek Cressman: There are dozens of things that we can do. In the appendix to the book I list more than twelve organizations that are working on this that folks can join up with. At the end of each chapter, I provide a tip literally titled, “What you can do.” So there’s eight tips right there in the book.
I think the most important thing is to not just get fixated on the one silver bullet. This problem is so vexing that we need everybody trying everything they can think of every single day, rather than arguing with each other about, “Well, this one approach is going to work and we should put all of our eggs in that basket and not waste resources on these other things.” I think that’s misplaced. We need a full assault on every front. Much like we won World War II not only by the D-Day invasion but also by the Manhattan Project and also by intelligence reports on Nazi communications and dozens of other things. We need an all-of-the-above strategy and there’s no shortage of ideas out there for people to engage upon.