By Katrina vanden Heuvel in the Nation

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing corporations the rights of citizens when it comes to electioneering, it became clearer than ever before that we need to take on and defeat the pay-to-play system that buys up Congress.  This fight took on added urgency after corporations spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists and watered down healthcare and financial reform bills.

That’s why it was so important that Senator Richard Durbin and Congresswoman Donna Edwards spoke to that very issue—challenging money politics—at the America’s Future Now conference in Washington, DC, on Monday.  They discussed two vital efforts to get money out of politics and restore power to the hands of the people—a public campaign financing system and a constitutional amendment granting Congress the authority to regulate corporate campaign expenditures.

“If Donna and I could tell you how many hours we spend—with our good colleagues on our side of the issues—talking about raising money, it would be an embarrassment,” said Durbin.  “Because it is an embarrassment, that we spend so much of our time begging for money from friends and strangers.”

Edwards agreed.  “For those of us who want to work on all of these policies every day—get us off the phone, calling people, asking them for money.”

The best way to do that is through the Fair Elections Now Act. Majority whip Durbin is the lead sponsor, along with Representative John Larson in the House. The bill has twenty Senate co-sponsors (fifteen of whom signed on since the Citizens United decision) and 153 bipartisan cosponsors in the House. The voluntary system would bar participating congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public matching funds. The funds would be provided through a surtax on companies currently doing business with the federal government—”a pretty modest amount of money when you consider how much these same companies are spending now in their lobbying efforts and their own political financing,” said Durbin. Only candidates demonstrating their viability through meeting a minimum threshold of signatures and small donations would be eligible.

Durbin said he hopes public campaign financing “will become the core of our effort on the progressive side.” Edwards also made the case that whatever one’s issue –advocating for women and children, the environment, clean energy, etc.—changing the campaign finance system should be “another piece of your work.”

“So much of what we do here is driven by money, and the internecine relationship between money and politics,” said Edwards. “This problem of corporate influence could hold us back from doing so many things for the American people.”

Durbin pointed out that clean election legislation has already been passed in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine. “Not necessarily blue states,” he said. “But the people there bought it—in a referendum, they said it’s the right thing to do.  We know in our heart of hearts when the American people are asked, they are with us. It is truly a bipartisan issue. It is one that we ought to grab and move forward.” (And we know it is bipartisan from polling too. A recent Greenberg/Mark McKinnon poll found that voters support the Fair Elections Now Act by a 2-1 margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.)

The other major problem Edwards addressed is a Roberts Supreme Court that seems hellbent on undermining any effort to clean up Congress and our elections.  In fact, on Tuesday the Supreme Court blocked the release of matching funds to candidates for office in Arizona under that state’s clean election law. The decision wouldn’t impact the Fair Elections proposal, which uses a different system to determine matching funds, but it’s part of a very disturbing pattern nonetheless. As the New York Times wrote in an editorial today, “It seems likely that the Roberts court will use this case to continue its destruction of the laws and systems set up in recent decades to reduce the influence of big money in politics.”

“With this court, we just have to cover all our bases,” said Edwards. “We have to make sure that if the court ever strikes down any of those [reform] provisions, that we don’t leave the Constitution untouched in order to protect us as voters, to protect our democracy, to protect us as citizens.”

To that end, Edwards has introduced legislation along with twenty-four cosponsors proposing a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress the authority to regulate expenditures by corporations engaging in political speech.

“I actually think we can do it,” said Edwards. “People fundamentally understand that it is a real problem when corporations can buy elections and believe that they can buy elected officials.”

Edwards encouraged people to get involved and especially to “build bridges even with some people you view as the most conservative, because I’m telling you, they are on the same page with this.”