Standing Room Only at Brookings Event on Solutions to Citizens United

On the sixth anniversary of the disastrous Citizens United decision, it’s clearer now more than ever that momentum is on the side of reformers. That was the conclusion of Thursday’s Solutions Summit at the Brookings Institution, where an exciting and diverse group gathered to discuss the crisis in our democracy and how to reduce money’s influence on our politics.

Participants included current and former members of Congress, leaders in the business community, lobbyists, state Supreme Court justices two former chairs (from both parties) of the Federal Election Commission, state legislators and renowned authorities on money in politics. As President Obama’s former ethics czar and Brookings Visiting Fellow Norm Eisen said:

“Individuals representing the most conservative and most liberal political ideals, from all different worlds, including every branch of government, state and federal levels, media, and lobbyists, have all come together around the consensus that our campaign finance system can and must be fixed. That consensus is what will turn into policy.”

Check out the full list of speakers here!

In the day’s first panel, former FEC Chairman (and Stephen Colbert’s super PAC lawyer) Trevor Potter spoke alongside current Commissioner (and former Chair) Ann Ravel about the broken agency and what steps are needed to make the FEC enforce campaign finance laws and hold rule-breakers accountable. Said Ravel, “We can’t resign ourselves to the campaign finance system we have now. I know today’s event will provide the solutions we need.” Some of those solutions include a Blue Ribbon commission to identify new, effective commissioners, using new technology to encourage civic engagement and new bills in Congress to correct some of the more egregious problems with the FEC. Other speakers included Tea Party leader and Take Back our Republic Executive Director John Pudner on conservative approaches to reform, executive vice president of the Committee on Economic Development Mike Petro and Peter Schweizer, the author of “Extortion,” and “Clinton Cash.”


Many of Issue One’s
ReFormers Caucus attended the event, including several who participated in the panel on the current crisis in our democracy. From former senators Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Bill Brock (R-TN) (and the many others!) who spoke in a video message to the conference, to panelists Sen. Tim Wirth (D-CO) and Rep Connie Morella (R-MD), to Amb. Tim Roemer (D-IN) who led the discussion, it’s clear the ReFormers have had enough with the current system and endorsed solutions like banning fundraising while Congress is in session.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) painted a dire picture of the current fundraising grind that led to his retirement announcement earlier this month. Comparing dialing for dollars to waterboarding and the “Wolf of Wall Street,” Israel said members of Congress are forced to spend more and more time in small cubicles, eating junk food and calling wealthy people to beg for money. How bad have things gotten? Israel estimates he’s spent over 4,200 in call time; Sen. Wirth says when he wasn’t working on official Congressional business, 85% of his time was dedicated to fundraising.

Honestly, you have to hear Rep. Israel in his own words to understand how truly bad the situation has become (thanks to an audience member for capturing this video).


But he and others were clear: there
are solutions to reduce fundraising fatigue, and they were all extremely hopeful for reform success in the coming years. All the panelists praised the ReFormers Caucus, and the impressive array of voices represented in the audience.

The key panel of the day focused on the many policy options available to reorient democracy back toward Main Street. Led by Eisen and featuring experts, judges and elected officials from states who have enacted successful programs, the discussion outlined how disclosure, ethics and lobbying reform, and small donor funding of elections (like the system in Maine) give politicians freedom to do their jobs and citizens confidence that their voices matter. You can read all about the solutions discussed in Blueprints for Democracy, an initiative from Issue One and Campaign Legal Center. The central takeaway? Citizens United was not the end for reform and momentum is growing to enact these common-sense ideas.

In the last panel of the day, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD) joined Issue One Executive Director Nick Penniman to explain how Citizens United and the 2016 election cycle has created a “bottoming out” moment for our democracy–and a prime opportunity to enact strong reforms. Alongside former Republican Congresswoman Claudine Schneider (R-RI) and MaydayPAC CEO and Board Chair Zephyr Teachout, Sarbanes recapped the day: the American people understand how Citizens United has caused the current crisis in our democracy, and they are demanding solutions across the country. And with the growing reform movement, which has more firepower than ever before, he’s confident we can rebuild public trust. Teachout and Schneider gave rousing calls to action: stop saying reform can’t happen, because the time is now.

“The Campaign Finance Crisis in America and How to Fix It: A Solutions Summit,” was the must-attend event in Washington, D.C. on the anniversary of Citizens United. The room was packed and buzzing all day with lively discussion on the new energy advocates are sensing in every town and city in America. With conservatives and liberals, business leaders and lobbyists, politicians and issue experts, all coming to bipartisan consensus on the nature of the problem and how to fix it, the event at Brookings marked the beginning of a new all-American movement to ensure our democracy is truly of, by and for the people.

See photos from the event on our Flickr page.

Audio from the event is available here.