Our state legislature this year again had an opportunity to strike a blow against the culture of corruption that is rapidly eroding American democracy. But in spite of the entreaties of roughly 1,800 constituents who signed petitions and made phone calls to legislators during the 2016 session, the Maryland General Assembly did even less with that opportunity than it did in 2015.
We hear a lot about the deep political divisions in our society. But regardless of party affiliation or ideological bent, just about everyone agrees that money has too much influence on our political system.
Nonetheless, Supreme Court decisions of the past 40 years — most infamously, Citizens United v. FEC — have whittled away at meager safeguards until virtually nothing stands in the way of multinational corporations, wealthy individuals, large nonprofit groups and labor unions who want to game the system.
The result is big banks, financial houses and industry writing their own regulations and getting rubber-stamp approval from a compliant Congress. Instead of voters choosing their representatives, it's the other way around. Democrats in blue states and Republicans in red ones make a farce of redistricting, creating maps that would make a contortionist proud as they carve up their constituents to suit their own ends.
Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of Howard County, might be the worst of these.
The rise of the super PACs and dark money has institutionalized fast-and-loose-with-the-facts attack ads from unaccountable sources.
Reversing the damage done by these Supreme Court rulings and re-establishing the power to regulate how much money can be raised and spent in political campaigns will require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Common Cause and other groups continue to lobby Congress on that front, but expecting creatures of this system to change it smacks of wishful thinking.
Article V of the Constitution, however, provides for another path to an amendment. If two thirds of the legislatures call for a convention of the states to draft an amendment on a specified topic of public import, Congress is obliged to assemble it.
So far, Vermont, California, New Jersey and Illinois have called for an amendment convention aimed at overturning "corporate personhood" and the other rulings that have neutered campaign finance law. For the past three years, Get Money Out-Maryland has worked to add our state to that list. In 2015, the resolution to do so passed the state Senate, but a gutting amendment added by a House of Delegates committee derailed it.
The Senate this year held off on a vote, waiting for the House to act. Again, the resolution bogged down in the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, which includes Howard County delegates Frank Turner and Shane Pendergrass. This year, the committee didn't even vote on it.
When the 2016 Assembly session ended last Monday, the measure died.
It appears likely that House Speaker Michael Busch, despite about 130 calls to his office from constituents asking him to release his grip on the committee members in this matter, nixed any possibility of a vote.
It also appears that some legislators have begun to buy into the "Pandora's Box" theory promulgated by groups ostensibly seeking campaign-finance reform but wary of an Article V convention, which they suppose could be hijacked by extremists of the right and/or left who could impose any number of radical amendments or even rewrite the entire document.
This theory ignores that, as with constitutional amendments proposed by Congress, three-fourths of the states (38) must approve it for it to be ratified. So even if the unlikely scenario above were to come to pass, the possibility of any amendment conceived in that process gaining the necessary support among the states is remote.
The thousands demonstrating and the hundreds arrested in acts of civil disobedience in Washington over the past two weeks have called attention — despite being largely ignored in mainstream media — to the broken state of American democracy.
Meanwhile, though, a new and more promising front in the struggle has opened at the local level as municipal and county governments have begun to implement programs to match small donations to campaigns that forego the big ones that are fouling our politics. Montgomery County approved such a program in 2014, and in its last voting session, the Howard County Council green-lighted a referendum for November's ballot to implement one in 2022.
Real democracy, after all, grows from the ground up.
Doug Miller is a freelance writer and voiceover artist. Contact him at email@example.com.