Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold said that the fallout from the Citizens United Case, decided in the U.S. Supreme Court, has resulted in the American Political Process, including Wisconsin, being "kidnapped" by wealthy, conservative and corporate interests.
Feingold made the remarks Thursday at what was billed as a non-partisan event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Ashland and Bayfield County at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center.
Feingold said the outcome of the 2010 5-4 Citizens United vote in the high court has been "a catastrophe."
"Look only at the recent history of the State of Wisconsin if you want me to define catastrophe," he said. "This state has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers. They control the Assembly, the Senate, the Governorship and the Supreme Court and they are not even from Wisconsin. It is just plain disgusting that this has happened to our democracy."
Feingold said the Citizens United decision "gutted" the bi-partisan work done to construct the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a bill he said was a single brick in a wall that has been built over decades to prevent the corrupting nature of unrestrained campaign funding from corporations and the very wealthy from controlling American elections.
"Citizens United was a bulldozer that knocked down that wall," he said.
The Citizens United vote is a landmark U.S. constitutional law and corporate law case that dealt with regulation of campaign spending by organizations.
In the decision, the Supreme Court held that freedom of speech forbids government from restricting independent political expenditures by nonprofit corporations, for-profit corporations, labor unions and other associations.
Feingold said in a single decision, the Supreme Court undid campaign reform that has been in place since Theodore Roosevelt was president.
"It's hard for people to remember, but things actually got substantially better after we passed Mc-Cain-Feingold," he said. "In 2004, 2006 and 2008, including the Obama election, you didn't have these unlimited secret contributions. You had a lot of little contributions on the Internet. It was becoming kind of like electronic democracy.
"But the Citizens United decision really gutted this. It turned elections into a crazy, hidden game that makes the average person feel cut out."
Feingold said that Citizens United was a "terrible decision that needed to be eliminated."
Feingold said that the action of Congress in refusing to consider President Obama's nomination to the Supreme Court was "the worst theft in the history of the supreme court."
Feingold said because of the makeup of the Supreme Court, that was something not likely to happen soon.
"In the meantime, we can pass laws requiring disclosure of these contributions," he said.
Feingold also called for eliminating the Federal Election Commission.
"It's a joke," he said. "It doesn't enforce the law. Get an enforcement agency."
Feingold said several states were acting to pass campaign finance reform at their own levels. He noted that cities such as Seattle and Portland had enacted reforms, and that the state of South Dakota had passed a statewide referendum for campaign reform.
"That is where the action will be for a while, at the state and local level," he said. "I am hoping that the people in Ashland and Bayfield County, who have always stood for campaign reform, will push for that."
Feingold said he has come around to the notion that the Electoral College should be abolished, observing that only once in the 19th century had a candidate been elected who won the contest in the Electoral College but lost in the popular vote.
"Well, two out of the last three presidents have gotten their first term that way," he said. "I had not taken the view, until this election, that we should get rid of the Electoral College. Finally I realized this is completely absurd."
Feingold said the Electoral College was developed in the 18th Century to protect the slave states.
"This is not something that belongs in this era," he said.
Feingold said the issues he raised "delegitimized fundamental democratic institutions," and he warned that there would be dire consequences if these matters were not addressed.
"The consequences have been dire," he said, recalling that after Mc-Cain-Feingold was passed but before Citizens United, it was a different situation.
"You had very different elections," he said. "There weren't unlimited contributions. You may think it was really corrupt, but you had this period where there weren't these soft money contributions. There were some abuses, but it was very limited. And at the same time the Internet grew up to the point where you had all kinds of people giving small contributions for the first time."
Feingold said the system was "vastly improved."
He also said the decision also led to many unintended consequences. He said the Supreme Court almost unanimously expected the Congress to write legislation forcing disclosure of where the new, unrestricted contributions were coming from.
"Of course that didn't happen," Feingold said. "We thought it was horrific when McCain and I were trying to pass the soft money ban that there were two billion dollars being spent in the election cycle, now it's seven billion, and most of it is very hidden and you can't even tell who it is putting the ads out."
Before his presentation, Feingold said he hoped that the message people took away from the event was that people could not give up on campaign finance reform.
"You have to start small, at the state and local level; that works," he said. "The right helped to take over this country by taking over local level government. We have to fight back against unlimited corrupt contributions. It is destroying our democracy, it is delegitimizing our democracy, and we have to fight back."