United Against the Citizens – Tiffany Muller | The Open Mind

United Against the Citizens – Tiffany Muller | The Open Mind

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 Muller. 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. HEFFNER: Right. 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. MULLER: Yeah. 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. HEFFNER: Right. 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 and 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 our 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. HEFFNER: Right. 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
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