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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. If you think of the language of Citizen’s United, it’s truly oxymoronic. The interest of the citizens was hijacked. It’s not Citizen’s United, it’s corporations united. The decision that the Supreme Court made favored corporations unlimited control of the American government and as our recent program with the nonpartisan Bridge Alliance leader David Nevins testified to, there is growing support across the political spectrum to extinguish that terminally ill Supreme Court decision that’s proving a fatal death, a nail in the coffin for America. Our guest today is Tiffany Miller. She’s president and executive director of End Citizen’s United. Welcome. Thank you for being here today.
MULLER: Thank you so much for having me.
HEFFNER: Tell our viewers the purpose, the function of your organization. You want to end Citizen’s United?
MULLER: Yeah. Our Name actually says it all. We want to end Citizen’s United, but we really want to get big money out of politics and return our democracy to the everyday American. And to do that, we work to help elect champions of campaign finance reform who will go to Congress and actually fight to unrig what we know is a really stacked system. And we also work at the state level trying to pass ballot measures to have more disclosure and transparency and to make sure that again, we’re restoring our democracy to the everyday people.
HEFFNER: Your first strategy is contingent upon electing governors, state reps, and at the federal level a congressional office holders who are going to enact legislation that will end the out of control influence of corporations on the political process.
MULLER: Yeah. As we look at it, we want to ultimately overturn the Citizen’s United decision which took two really terrible ideas and merged them: that corporations are people and that money equals speech and it put a for sale sign on our democracy. And it said, you can spend unlimited amounts of money to try to basically buy all the seats you want in Washington. And so now you have a system where Americans think that the system isn’t working for them. Ninety three percent of Americans think that government works for the benefit of just a few big interests. They’re not wrong, right? But that means only seven percent of Americans believe that our government is working to help solve their problems. That level of cynicism and lack of faith in our government has this really corrosive effect on our democracy. So we’re tackling this from a multitude of angles.
MULLER: One, we want to overturn Citizen’s United. And to get there, we have to get the right Supreme Court justices and get that overturned or pass a Constitutional Amendment. Both of those are going to take us awhile, but we’re making progress toward both.
HEFFNER: Or a law.
MULLER: But, well, in the meantime, what we can do is there are about 20 really good pieces of legislation sitting in Congress. We just lack the backbone and the spine of the, our current members to actually vote on them and to get them passed. And so we know that if we flip the House this November and maybe the Senate as well, that the very first thing that we could do is pass a bill – The Disclose Act that would require all spending in elections to be fully disclosed and transparent. That at the very least is where we should start. Voters should at least know who’s putting money into influence our elections. And there are a host of other bills. Everything from closing loopholes that let foreign money into our system, to making the Federal Elections Commission and actual agency with teeth in that works rather than what we’ve seen currently. So we’re working to elect members who have this as a priority and who are going to make this their top priority when they get to Congress.
HEFFNER: As long as we keep saying that we want to overturn or reverse Citizen’s United, for the lay person, a non-constitutional lawyer or jurist, there was something innocuous and even patriotic about this original idea of citizens uniting because our speech is being limited. How do we win the language, the discourse argument here because Citizen’s United, like I said, and I saw you smile.
HEFFNER: That is not what the decision was. And that’s not a fair characterization of who was represented in the court case. So I’m wondering how we can characterize Citizen’s United in a way that does not inaccurately reflect the interest there because they’re not the citizens and they’re not united.
MULLER: No, they are united in the big money donors having all the power.
MULLER: That is what they’re united for. I smiled because we spent a lot of time after last cycle’s elections going around and talking to voters across the country and we would ask them if they knew what Citizen’s United was. And my favorite is that more than once I got: I know what that is. It’s that insurance company. I’ve seen their new ads on TV. So you’re right, people don’t really understand what it is and if you just hear the name, it sounds pretty innocuous. So we spend a lot of time actually talking about what it did: that it allowed corporations and special interests to spend unlimited in undisclosed money in our elections and people really understand that and Democrats, Independents, Republicans across the board, they are in favor of overturning that.
They understand that money in politics directly impacts their lives, that everything from rising prescription drug prices to a tax bill that we just saw that was created just for the big corporations and big bank of donors, that those things are hurting their day to day lives and that rather than focusing on fixing problems that impact them, that too much of what’s going on in Washington DC is about helping out those special interests. So voters actually are there with us on money in politics. They’re there with us on overturning what Citizen’s United did. They just don’t always have that technical jargon.
HEFFNER: How do you flip the script on Citizen’s United so that it becomes a source of disunity, disunion that that decision was destructive. You know, we live in a culture where you need nicknames for Twitter arguments against a cause. And I’m just wondering how we…
MULLER: We have few, we have a couple…
HEFFNER: grapple with that
MULLER: Look again, the concept they really understand, and while our name is End Citizen’s United, what we tend to use a little bit more of is Stop Big Money. That’s actually our Twitter handle. @ Stop Big Money, and Corporations Are Not People you would be surprised at how much, even though people don’t understand that came directly from, was tied to the Citizen’s United decision. They understand that the Supreme Court put a rubber stamp on this idea that corporations are people and they understand that that’s really ridiculous.
HEFFNER: The President could veto any new laws or legislation that is poised to pass. What is your plan to work with the conditions as they’ve evolved beyond 2018?
MULLER: Well, first of all, the President ran on this issue, right? He actually ran on the understanding that Washington was being bought and sold that he was going to drain the swamp. Even that he had given big amounts of money so that politicians would do what he wanted. He diagnosed the problem really well and we saw it work incredibly effectively with independent voters and unaffiliated voters and people who are feeling really cut out of the system now. We also know what he’s done since he got in the White House, which is make the problem worse. Just this past week we saw the IRS say that the social welfare organizations who are really just running political ads no longer have to do any disclosure of their donors at all. Something the Koch’s had been fighting for, for quite a number of years. So number one, we know, we know the public’s with us. What tops all the charts, every time we talked to voters as they want disclosure and transparency.
So we know that if we take back the House in November, that the very first thing that we need to do is pass a Fix Government bill that includes some of these common sense reforms, disclosure and transparency, fixing the Federal Elections Commission. I’m a working with small dollar donors and trying to incentivize small dollar donors. We know that we can get that passed if we have the right votes in the House and in the Senate, and then we know that the people are with us, the grassroots are with us and their voices are going to be heard on this. He could veto it, but at the same time we’re going to put a lot of pressure and create a lot of noise.
HEFFNER: I think you make a really essential point, which is that the President abandoned this argument that he alone could fix government because he had been bought or buying and selling in stock of these elected officials: McConnell Pelosi, whoever was in charge. And he and he completely relinquished that message because he bought into the Republican orthodoxy, in terms of who funded his campaign and the stakeholders of his administration. So I think putting his feet to the fire there could be quite effective should the Democrats, retake the house. But I want to shift it. If only you know, we think about the West Wing, the, the wonderful Sorkin show about the White House and President Bartlet, Martin Sheen’s character, but towards the end of the West Wing, when Matthew Santos is elected, who is Jimmy Smits, he succeeds Josiah Bartlet. He campaigned much like Obama and Trump to end the political dysfunction and bring harmony, and when he becomes president elect in the show, the West Wing, he decides to tackle this issue: money in politics, lobbying, ethics as his first issue because he explains to the viewers and to his own staff that this is the issue that dictates all other issues. The tentacles of money infecting every issue that is serving a special class of people and not all Americans, that is true of the business lobby in every issue, whether you want to go to medicine or the environment. And I always use that example and regret with President Obama that he didn’t decide to really try to change the system that way from the outset. To me there is no more important issue than the one you are championing because it affects all other issues.
MULLER: Well, we, we couldn’t agree more and don’t we wish we had Matthew Santos running right now? What’s interesting about that time period is that was actually pre Citizen’s United, so we already knew that the system had major flaws in it, and then the Supreme Court, out of naïveté or other reasons, basically took that corruption and put it on steroids. Now, prior to Citizen’s United in 2008, there was a $143 million dollars of outside spending in elections. In 2016, just a few short election cycles later that number had skyrocketed to one point $1.4 billion dollars. It’s a 900 percent increase. And what it meant for someone running for office was that if I was running for office as a congressional candidate prior to Citizen’s United, I control two thirds of the messaging that voters heard about me, who I am, what I stand for, what I care about, what I’m going to go work on.
And since Citizen’s United, that ratio is flipped. So now if I was running for Congress, I only control a third of what voters hear about me. That’s completely changed the way that even voters get to decide who’s going to go represent them in Congress. You know, President Obama actually ran in 2007 in the primary and throughout all of his campaigns, he didn’t take any PAC money at all. He didn’t take any lobbyist money, and I was actually watching one of his wrap-up ads in the primary in 2008, just two days ago. And the whole closing ad was about him doing things differently and not taking that money because he understood then that how much our faith was being shaken in our democracy.
HEFFNER: And that changed during the general election, right? He, he…
MULLER: No, he’s never took PAC money or lobbyist money, but the emphasis on the,
HEFFNER: He opted out of the public system though he was, he was getting more money than McCain and therefore he took advantage of that fact, right?
MULLER: Yeah. I mean he still did something unheard of, which is run without PAC money or lobbyist money. But you’re right he also maybe pulled back from putting it front and center.
MULLER: What we’re seeing this cycle though is candidates putting it front and center. So we work with candidates all across the country and right now we have 60 candidates that are running who aren’t taking any corporate PAC money. That’s unheard of last cycle in 2016 there were only three. So we are seeing this wave of momentum and they’re winning. That’s the other thing. These candidates are winning and they’re winning on this issue. Conor Lamb, Pennsylvania 18. It’s a Trump plus 20 district. He ran on protecting social security, protecting jobs and wages, and not taking any corporate PAC money. And we were with him from day one. Our members were with him from day one and we went in and asked voters why they voted for him after the election and not taking corporate PAC money was the second biggest reason why voters had voted for him. Voters…
HEFFNER: Where they can genuinely assert that they are for the people.
MULLER: Exactly, but that they understand, voters understand that it means that they can trust that their representative is going to go and make decisions that are in the best interest of that district rather than who’s giving them money or who met with them that week. That this is really about restoring faith in our representatives.
HEFFNER: How do you explain the extreme disconnect between the Supreme Court and those candidates? The reality on the ground?
MULLER: It wasn’t just one decision. What we’ve seen is us a number of decisions that have empowered corporations and those who can spend unlimited amounts of money at the expense of everyone else. And I would like to think that it was out of a sense of naiveness that if it wasn’t a quid pro quo in the old fashioned sense where I hand you a check and you say you’re going to vote for my thing, that it wasn’t actually corruption. It’s just hard to believe that
HEFFNER: Well Tiffany, was it the naïveté here or the unwillingness to realize the application of the Federalist Society to the First Amendment. When you say money is speech and when you say people are corporations, which has no precedent, then the application of that is the annihilation of the American people.
MULLER: Absolutely, and corporations aren’t engaging in our elections because they’re civically minded and they think that you or I are standing up for the right values for America. They’re engaging on our system because they care about their profit.
HEFFNER: So how will that aspect of your mission to end the effects of that tormented decision, how will that play into your organization in terms of shifting the jurisprudence to the point where the congress could adopt a new law, the President would sign it and then it would not be overturned. How’s your long-term strategy on this?
MULLER: So we have a couple of different pieces on that. Number one is there are some amazing allies that we work with all the time out there who are working even today to bring the right kind of cases up through the courts so that we’re getting the right kind of challenges we need. At the same time we know that we need the right justices on the bench, and that’s why we are focused as well on overturn up, taking back the Senate so that when there’s a Supreme Court opening or appellate court openings that we’re able to confirm the right nominees and one of the things we’re doing, even with a Judge Kavanaugh right now is making sure that people really understand how bad his decisions on this issue have been. You know, he actually ruled for unlimited spending and unlimited money in elections five months before Citizen’s United was actually decided. And he was on the panel who wrote the decision that allowed Super PACS. He’s been really clear about the fact that he believes mega donors should have more power in our elections, not less. And so we need people who are going to stand up for everyday American people and go back to one vote, one person, one voice, one vote.
HEFFNER: It’s not to me, just a question of the judges or justices. It’s a question of the thinking of the American people and even the thinking within Republican circles, if they’re the ones who were putting forward names for the bench, that you know, if they’re going to believe greed is good, greed is what governs this country, greed is what should elect our politicians in what should determine public policy, then that’s the way we’re going to operate. But how do we influence the thinking of the body that is so determinative right now?
MULLER: Wow, those are great questions. I’ll try to take them a little bit at a time. First, we know that even Republicans, Republican voters want to overturn Citizen’s United. 78 percent of Republican voters think it was a bad decision and should be overturned. They, again, they don’t know the words Citizen’s United. But when you explain what the decision did, even Republican…
HEFFNER: But, how do you, how do you explain it?
MULLER: We say that it allowed for unlimited and undisclosed money from special interests and corporations.
HEFFNER: And then the evidence of what that’s done to us, how do you explain that
MULLER: We don’t even have to explain the evidence
HEFFNER: But for those people who would need that…
MULLER: We talk about things like what we hear the most from voters is rising prescription drug costs. They understand that Pharma is getting big handouts while their prescription drug costs keep going up. They understand that the fossil fuel industry is getting billions and billions in subsidies every year. But we can’t address climate change or we can’t bring down the cost of gas in their car. We understand what 86 percent of Americans support universal background checks, but we can’t get that done in Congress because we have too many members who are bought and sold by the NRA. So actually voters across the country of all partisanship understand the problems this is causing and want it overturned. So the problem we’ve had is actually then how do you get the members of Congress there with you? And I think right now what we’ve seen, because that’s the one place it’s partisan.
Democrats want to change the system. Republicans right now are protecting a rigged system and actually frankly making it worse and I think the trade off has been that they’ve looked around and said, my big donors want me to continue protecting the system and protecting them. I haven’t seen backlash yet from the voters. I’m going to go with my big donors and we’re here to show them that there is a consequence for those actions and I think if enough of them lose in November and we continue to turn out the grassroots support that we know we have, we have 4 million members across the country in most of these congressional districts, that’s over 5,000 members. So getting them to show up and make phone calls and show up at town halls that actually, we don’t have to match the other side dollar for dollar because we have more people power than they do.
HEFFNER: Elected Congress people and their big donors. When does that relationship, and I mean that’s what you’re in effect attempting to achieve.
MULLER: I think when they see that the money alone doesn’t buy them reelection will end….
HEFFNER: And that’s really for our viewers. That’s really the central motivator. If they win again, your mission, well, I know you’ll still be vigorously promoting it, is not something that we can execute, they really. It really does matter. Elections have consequences. Is there any scenario in which the system keeps on going like this and those congress people realize at a certain point there’s a conflict because it’s not going to be their moral objection or conscience that’s governing them and saying, I’m not going to heed the will of the big companies. Maybe it will be their constituents.
MULLER: We need people. We need people’s voices. We need people to speak out. Most of all, we need people to vote. This is a midterm election. I think the turnout in the last midterm was 37 percent of voters, right. That’s abysmal. And we should not have on the future of our country when the stakes are this high being decided by 37 percent of those who are registered to vote. So we need all of your viewers to show up. And then we need their voices, right? Calling, representatives calling, senators showing up at town halls, writing letters to the editor, all of these things that for years we’ve talked about doing to get involved in our democracy, they matter, because look, I actually think that a whole lot of members in Congress are trapped in a really, really broken system and would like to change it, but they need to know that they are going to be forced to change it because the grassroots will is there behind them and it’s going to force a change.
HEFFNER: If there is sufficiently strong momentum, you think that ending that decision, I’m not going to say it: Ending Citizen’s United will become a nonpartisan objective.
MULLER: I do. I do. I think we will get there. It’s not going to be overnight and it’s not going to be the day after, the day after Election Day this year, but we’re going to get there.
HEFFNER: And are you going to keep saying Citizen’s United or you’re going to say this annihilation, this horrible abomination. I just can’t continue to say those words when they are an oxymoron. It’s hard for me. Do you find it? I know your organization is End, terminate not salvage
MULLER: End Citizen’s United,
HEFFNER: But I find it difficult because it’s conceding ground.
MULLER: We talk a lot about just getting big money out of politics, ending big money’s influence in politics. That’s why.
HEFFNER: But even big money, there’s something very patriotic, very capitalistic.
MULLER: But people get that People get that.
HEFFNER: You think that they are against it?
MULLER: They are. And you know what’s interesting is actually voters don’t blame the corporations. They don’t even blame the big money donors. They blame the politicians. They blame the people that they’re voting and sending to Congress and sending to Washington to represent them. They think they need to stand up, have a spine and have the integrity to do what’s right. And so that’s also part of what we really focus on is making sure that we have honest leadership in Washington who’s going to stand up for the people again.
HEFFNER: And you don’t think you’re being too polite about it.
MULLER: And we call out Democrats when we think they’re wrong. We call out Independents, we call out Republicans, we don’t hold back and we do everything we can to win these elections. But I will look for a good catchphrase because I’m always looking for a new bumper sticker too.
HEFFNER: Right? And when, as we said before, in the example of President-elect Santos, that was a fiction, the west wing, but really the idea that money absorbs every issue and that is what in the final analysis determines whether we have Medicare for All, whether we have sufficient healthcare for our fellow citizens.
MULLER: We have seen it. We have seen how – and I’ve seen it firsthand. I was a chief of staff on the Hill and I saw how, you know, people would buy access and buy influence and then, try to influence a vote or influence an amendment that goes into a bill, or just make sure didn’t come up for a vote. Right? Right now, big money is controlling Capital Hill.
HEFFNER: And it’s controlling whether you have clean water.
MULLER: That’s right.
HEFFNER: It’s controlling whether you have good air quality, all of these things.
MULLER: Whether we’re holding banks accountable for ripping off consumers. Whether we can actually passing meaningful infrastructure reform and get good jobs in this country. All of those things are being threatened by big money in politics.
HEFFNER: Tiffany, we’ve worked ourselves into a tizzy.
MULLER: We did.
HEFFNER: I think we’re ready to take on the challenges ahead. Thank you for what you’re doing.
MULLER: Well. Thank you so much for having me on.
HEFFNER: You’re welcome and thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook@OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.