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Student Leadership conference fights back against big money in politics

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. warned student leaders of corruption with Super PAC fundraising and spending.
Alex Ivey / Mainstream
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. warned student leaders of corruption with Super PAC fundraising and spending.

Activism echoed through Portland State University as nearly 500 student leaders attended a conference at the end of February that addressed some of the greatest political issues facing the country.

The Northwest Student Leadership Conference brought together students from across the region to strengthen and mobilize their leadership. Citizens United became one of the common themes during this time; Citizens United is a reference to the 2010 Supreme Court decision which grants unlimited raising and spending of money to Super PACs for spending on political campaigns. Speakers, workshops, and documentary screenings frequently referred to the theme.

 “[Citizens United] is very distorting and corrosive and corrupting of the American political system,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said to attendees. “If we want to take on a host of issues that are relevant to the success of our families, relevant to the health of our environment, relevant to ending predatory practices that strip wealth from families […] that means we have to take on this money in our political system.”

Citizens United is especially harmful to the education system because students have so little influence amid the billions of dollars spent by Super PACs —a sentiment nearly palpable during the conference.

Concern over money in politics is largely non-partisan as well. According to a November Tulchin Research and M4 Strategies poll taken for Represent.us, 92 percent of respondents believed it was important for elected officials to “reduce the influence of money in political elections.”

The country can reverse Citizen United in one of only two ways: The Supreme Court can change its mind and reverse its decision or a constitutional amendment can be passed instead. Because the nine Supreme Court justices are life-long positions, have no obligation to represent U.S. citizens and have shown no interest in changing direction, this leaves the Supreme Court as a very unlikely source of a solution.

Instead, a constitutional amendment is the only definitive option to ensure that money stops corrupting politics.

“That is a rough go,” Merkley said to students in regards to an amendment. While both of Oregon’s U.S. senators, including Merkley, have cosponsored legislation to reverse Citizens United, such a bill has not advanced through Congress. That’s no surprise.

Big money brings big results for elections. The majority of Congress will want to keep the funding that elects them. Political culture on the national level is almost completely hooked on Super PAC money that has come from Citizens United. Party leadership expects Congress members  to start spending about half of their time raising money for their next elections as soon as they originally arrive in office, according to Ryan Grim and Sabrina Siddiqui of The Huffington Post.

An alternate method of passing a constitutional amendment without going through Congress does exist.

By calling an Article V Constitutional Convention, the country can completely bypass Congress to pass an amendment. Instead of an amendment being approved by two-thirds of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states, two-thirds of states can call for a convention where the resulting proposal would be ratified by three-fourths of all U.S. states.

In an irony of words, a Constitutional Convention is “unconventional.” It has never been used except to draft the Constitution itself. However, as more people become aware of the devastating impact of Citizens United, of the weaknesses of popularly proposed solutions and of the potential with a Constitutional Convention, the possibility to overturn Citizens United may finally be within grasp.