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Sen. Bernie Sanders: Supreme Court Undermines Democracy by Allowing Billionaires to “Buy Elections”

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As the 2014 election season gets underway, the Supreme Court has struck down a long-standing limit on how much donors can give to federal candidates, political parties and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. Without any aggregate limit, a donor can now give millions directly to candidates and parties. The 5-to-4 decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC case is being described as the “next Citizens United,” referring to the 2010 ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate spending on U.S. elections. We speak to Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont about Wednesday’s landmark decision and his fight to remove big money from the electoral process. We also discuss Sanders’ potential presidential run in 2016, which he says he is considering “not because I wake up in the morning with a burning desire to be president … but [because] I happen to believe there are such enormous issues out there that I just don’t want to see swept under the rug.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the 2014 election season gets underway, the Supreme Court has issued a major ruling on campaign finance in a case described by many as “the next Citizens United.” In a 5-to-4 vote Wednesday, the court’s conservative justices eliminated a long-standing limit on how much donors can give in total to federal candidates, party committees and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. Without any aggregate limit, a donor can now give millions of dollars directly to candidates and parties.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, quote, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. … Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”

In an unusual dissent from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer said the decision, quote, “eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.” Judge Breyer went on to say, quote, “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”

Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas said he agreed with the majority opinion, but he wrote separately to say he would have gone further and wiped away all contribution limits.

For more, we go to Capitol Hill, where we’re joined by Senator Bernie Sanders, independent senator from Vermont. Last year he introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling that allowed unrestricted, secret campaign spending. Sanders was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He’s the longest-serving independent member of Congress in American history.

Senator Sanders, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you first share your response to the Supreme Court decision?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: It was a disastrous decision, following on the footsteps of Citizens United. And, Amy, in my view, you know, what the justices, the right-wing justices, are talking about is freedom of speech for billionaires and large corporations to own American democracy. At a time when we already have enormous income and wealth inequality in this country, what the justices are saying is that these very same people can now basically purchase the United States government, can spend unlimited sums of money on elections. And I think that is a disaster for the foundations of American democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you pass a law that says contributions must be made transparent, and sooner than they are now?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Yeah, you could pass that law. In fact, there’s been a bill around that we didn’t get Republican support for. It’s called the DISCLOSE Act. But that doesn’t go far enough. I mean, in the real world, this is what’s going on. In the real world, you have families like the Koch brothers, and you saw the spectacle in Las Vegas last week of Sheldon Adelson. And these people are prepared. These people, Amy, have billions of dollars. The Koch brothers are worth $80 billion. For them to pop a few billion dollars into the political process, for Sheldon Adelson to call prospective Republican nominees for the presidency to come before him to hear what they have to say so maybe he can anoint them with his hundreds of millions of dollars, is just an outrage to the struggles that people have undertaken in this country for democracy.

And, by the way, if you listen carefully—and you just mentioned this—what Judge Thomas was talking about—and this is where the Republicans want to go; make no mistakes about it—they say, “This is not enough. What we want,” what Judge Thomas and the Republican Party want, “eventually, is to lift all limitations,” so the Koch brothers or Adelson can pour millions of dollars directly into every right-wing candidate in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday morning, Republican House Speaker John Boehner praised the Supreme Court decision as a victory for freedom of speech. This is what he said.

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld. You all have the freedom to write what you want to write. Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give. This was—remember, all this goes back to this bizarre McCain-Feingold bill that was passed that has distorted the political process in ways that no one—no one who voted for it ever believed in. Some of us understood what was going to happen. And when you—it’s pushing all this money outside the party structure into all these other various forms. And I’m all for freedom. Congratulations.

AMY GOODMAN: House Speaker John Boehner. Senator Sanders, your response?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, my response is that Boehner is right, in a sense. He’s talking about freedom for a few hundred of the wealthiest people in this country. If you go up to the average person and say, “Guess what! We’ve given you more freedom. Previously, you could only spend $125,000 in direct contributions to candidates; now you have the freedom to spend $4 or $5 million.” People will look at you like you are crazy. This is freedom for a handful of the wealthiest people in this country to undermine American democracy and to buy elections. That is, to my mind, not what democracy is supposed to be about.

And let me add this, Amy, because I think a lot of people, you know, have concerns about the economy, healthcare, the environment. They say, “Well, this is really not all that important.” They’re wrong. Understand what these folks want, most of the people who are contributing, the billionaires who are contributing into the political process. Take a look at what the Koch brothers’ agenda is about. It is to end Social Security—privatize it, cut it—end Medicare as we know it, end Medicaid, cut federal aid to education, do away with the Environmental Protection Agency so these guys can pollute and pollute and pollute. This is a decision that will impact every American’s life, giving more power to the very, very wealthy and, in my view, moving this country away from a democratic form of society into an oligarchic form of society.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this McCutcheon decision compare to Citizens United?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: It’s a bad decision, not as bad, in my view, as Citizens United. What Citizens United—you know, what this decision says is, “OK, you can now spend $5 million in direct contributions to candidates.” That’s really bad. What Citizens United says is, “Hey, you can go into your corporate treasury. You can spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Just one last point on that. Both Obama and Mitt Romney spent a little over a billion dollars in their campaigns. I suspect that in the next presidential campaign the Koch brothers—themselves—will spend a billion dollars to elect the candidate of their choice.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Senator Sanders, what are you planning to do about this?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think we’ve got to move forward in a couple of directions. I think the first point that we have to move—direction that we have to move in is to overturn Citizens United. And that requires a constitutional amendment. There are now many, many hundreds of cities and towns throughout the country who have gone on record in supporting overturning Citizens United. I think there are something like 16 or 17 states that have done that.

Here’s the point, Amy, on this one, and it’s an interesting point: I do not believe that this is simply a progressive-versus-conservative issue. I think you’ve got a lot of ordinary conservatives out there who say, “You know what? We didn’t fight and die in war to preserve democracy so that a handful of billionaires can control the political process.” I think we can put together a strong coalition. I think we’ve got to focus on that. Groups like Public Citizen are already doing a great job.

Second thing we’ve got to do—longer-term, but equally important—we need to move to public funding of elections—doing exactly the opposite of what Boehner was talking about. Boehner talks about freedom for billionaires to be able to buy elections. Our job is to say to these billionaires, “Sorry, you’re not going to buy elections.” Everybody in this country, whether you have a lot of money or not, should have the opportunity to run for office.

AMY GOODMAN: What about your plans in 2016, Senator Sanders? Are you considering running for president of the United States?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, what I have said, Amy, is that I am considering running it—running for president. It’s a long way from Election Day and very long time before I have to make that decision. The reason that I made that—that I said that is not because I wake up in the morning with a burning desire to be president. That really is not the case. But I happen to believe that there are such enormous issues out there that I just don’t want to see swept under the rug. The middle class in this country is disappearing. We have more people living in poverty than ever before. The gap between the very, very rich, everybody else, is growing wider. The scientific community tells us that climate change is the great environmental crisis facing our planet, that we need bold and aggressive action to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Real unemployment today is 12 percent; it’s not 6.8 percent. We need to create millions of jobs. We need to be deal with the issue. You and I have been talking about election reform, constitutional amendment. This is a critical moment in American history, and the same old, same old is not really good enough. So, I’m going to be going around the country talking to people and see what kind of support there is for a strong progressive agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, apparently, a lot of pressure was brought on Senator Elizabeth Warren not to run, from the Hillary Clinton camp—I can’t say campaign, because she hasn’t announced. Are you feeling any of that kind of pressure?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, I’m not. And, you know, I have a lot of respect for Elizabeth. She’s doing a great job in the Senate. But the issue to me is to make sure that the needs of working families, the needs of the middle class, the needs of lower-income people get a fair shot, that they are being heard, that the ideas that we need to transform American society are getting out there.

AMY GOODMAN: The minimum wage? President Obama’s push for $10.10?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I hope very much—I think, obviously, we’ve got to go higher than that, but $10.10 is a good start, will take many, many millions of people out of poverty. We also have to deal with the tip wage situation, where you have waiters and waitresses making just a few dollars an hour. So, if we’re talking about lowering the number of people who are living in poverty, giving people a little bit of dignity, we’ve got to start by at least raising the minimum wage to $10.10. Got to go further than that. But probably equally important, we need a massive jobs program in this country to create millions of jobs. We can do that by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

AMY GOODMAN: And Obamacare—your state, Vermont, is going toward a kind of single-payer plan in the next few years.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: That is right. I am a strong advocate of a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program. I think we should all take a deep breath and ask why it is that the United States of America is the only major country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all people as a right. And yet, with tens of millions of people uninsured, we end up spending almost twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the people of any other country. So, I do believe that healthcare is a right. I believe a Medicare-for-all, single-payer is the way to go. I hope my state of Vermont will lead the nation in that direction. And if we do it well, I suspect that other states will follow.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, NSA surveillance, your stance, from the USA PATRIOT Act to what has been exposed until now?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I voted against the USA PATRIOT Act on two occasions. I feared very much what in fact is happening. I think you have agencies like the NSA, CIA, for that matter, who are pretty much out of control and, under the guise of fighting terrorism, have taken a giant step in undermining constitutional rights and the privacy rights of the American people. I think there is no excuse for capturing the phone calls and filing the phone calls of virtually every American, no excuse, to my mind, for getting into the emails and visiting the websites that people are watching. You know, yes, of course, we have to be vigorous in protecting this country against terrorism. But I think there’s no question in my mind that the intelligence agencies have gone far beyond where they should be going.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Bernie Sanders, I know you have to leave. Thank you so much for joining us, speaking to us from the Rotunda in Washington, D.C. This is Democracy Now! Senator Sanders is the independent senator from Vermont. Last year he introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling that allowed unrestricted, secret campaign money. He is the long-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history.

When we come back, we’ll go to a Mother Jones reporter to talk about just who Shaun McCutcheon is. The Supreme Court decision was called McCutcheon v. FEC. We’ll speak with Andy Kroll. Stay with us.

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Next story from this daily show

“The Next Citizens United”: McCutcheon Opens Floodgates for 1 Percent to Spend Millions on Campaigns

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