In fact, the groundwork for modern sleaze was set a long time ago, in 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that, in effect, money was speech — and that any rich individual could spend all he or she wanted running for office.
What the Supreme Court has done, though, is set the modern political tone for campaign finance — among other things, invalidating a Montana law that barred corporate contributions to campaigns. And in the majority ruling and the assenting opinions, the court made clear that it doesn't think government has any role in leveling the campaign playing field — that it's not the business of government to decide that the money and speech of rich people and big business is drowning out the opinions and speech of the rest of the populace.
SO NOW WHAT?
So now that every decent-thinking human being in the United States agrees that there's too much sleazy money in politics and that it's not a good thing for government to be for sale to the highest bidder, the really interesting — and difficult — question comes up: What do we do about it?
There are a lot of competing answers to that question. And frankly, none of them are perfect.
That may be one reason why the ACLU is mostly on the sidelines. When I contacted the national office to ask if anyone wanted to talk about the efforts to overturn Citizens United, spokesperson Molly Kaplan sent me an email saying "we actually don't have anyone available for this."
But on its website, the organization — in a nuanced statement on campaign reform — notes: "Any rule that requires the government to determine what political speech is legitimate and how much political speech is appropriate is difficult to reconcile with the First Amendment."
In an ACLU blog post, Laura Murphy, director of the group's Legislative Office in Washington DC, argues that "a Constitutional amendment—specifically an amendment limiting the right to political speech—would fundamentally 'break' the Constitution and endanger civil rights and civil liberties for generations."
But David Cobb, one of the organizers of Move To Amend, which is pushing a Constitutional amendment, told me that "the idea that spending money is sacred is part of the problem, the reason that we don't have a functioning democracy."
There are two central parts to the problem: The notion that corporations have the same rights to free speech as people, and the notion that money is speech. Eliminate the first — which is immensely popular — and you still allow the Meg Whitmans and Koch brothers of the world to pour their personal fortunes into seeking political office or promoting other candidates.
Eliminate the second and you open a huge can of worms.
"It would be a disaster, in my view," Scheer said. "As a general principle, I'm frightened by the concept of tampering with the Constitution."
Money may not equal free speech, but it's hard to exercise the right to free speech in a political campaign without money. And there are broader impacts that might be hard to predict.
But Peter Schurman, one of the founders of MoveOn.org and a leader in Free Speech for the People, told me that "it's a false premise that money equals speech. The point is to get a level playing field."
Move to Amend and Free Speech for People are promoting similar approaches, Constitutional amendments that, in fairly simple terms, would radically and forever alter American politics. Several members of Congress have offered Constitutional amendments that include similar language.