Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold warned at an April 24 appearance at Fordham that, if campaign finance laws are not fixed to address the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision, the concerns of average citizens will be ignored by both major political parties.

“When both parties have been bought off, you get things like trade agreements that send all our jobs overseas on votes like 90 to 10. You get a vote such as the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which consolidated things like the radio industry and took away an enormous amount of creativity,” he told a packed McNally Amphitheatre at the Fordham School of Law.

“You know what else you get? You get the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and you get a crash in this nations’ economy, on a vote of 92 to 8. And yes, I was on the losing side of all these votes.”

Feingold was at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for a panel on “The Influence of Money on Political Agendas,” which he shared with Michael Malbin, Ph.D., professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of Fordham’s Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy.

The panel was part of “Money, Media and the Battle for Democracy’s Soul,” an interdisciplinary conference sponsored by the Fordham Center for Ethics Education and the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy.
NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd delivered the keynote address, “Media Coverage and Election 2012: Navigating the Political Landscape.”

Feingold and Malbin both emphasized that there are concrete ways to reform campaign finance laws, even in the aftermath of the 2010 decision in Citizen’s United, which, in allowing for unrestricted campaign contributions by corporations and unions, has unleashed a flood of unregulated money into the political arena.

Malbin lauded Feingold for his efforts, along with Senator John McCain, to regulate “soft money” via the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, but said efforts like it were akin to sitting on the lid of a pot about to boil over.

Instead, he advocated expansion of campaign finance currently in use in New York City, which allows a 6-to-1 matching system for gifts of $175 or under. The system encourages a greater pool of citizens to run for office, he said, and—just as importantly—encourages more people to give to campaigns.

“This is not only important financially, but it’s also important in terms of what’s the moral content of democracy,” he said, noting that New York could act as a model for the nation. “It’s having people more fully engage in the process that they that should be in fact own.”

Both were withering in their assessments of Citizens United. Where it is particularly insidious is it does not require independent “SuperPACs” to disclose where they get the unlimited funds they are free to spend on political campaigns, they said.

Feingold was joined on the panel by Costas Panagopoulos, (center) and Michael Malbin.
Photo By Chris Taggart

[In 2002], every time we brought up McCain–Feingold, they said ‘We don’t need this McCain–Feingold stuff; we just need disclosure.’ Until Citizen’s United; then it was ‘Oh now we don’t need disclosure,’” Feingold said.

“A group can shunt the money from a corporation to a SuperPAC, it could be from Exxon, and they could call it ‘Main Street Barbers for Main Street.’”

Feingold, who has founded Progressives United to fight Citizens United, said he suspected that foreign money was now also being used in SuperPACs. Malbin joked that the fig leaf that supposedly separated political campaigns from independent groups is now made of “chiffon.”

“If you don’t think sitting presidents are going to send cabinet members around to ask people to give money to their independent campaigns, one, you haven’t read about Watergate, two, you haven’t read about Bill Clinton, and three, you haven’t read what this White House has said it is going to do,” he said.

“Now, this particular White House may not behave corruptly, but it is absolutely guaranteed that sooner or later, somebody will.”