By Dino Grandoni
It is not just about the Earth’s rising temperatures. Many Democrats running for president are see climate change as symptomatic of another problem: too much money in politics.
One White House hopeful, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), on Thursday unveiled an anticorruption plan that is explicitly meant to make it easier for Congress to address global warming — and other Democratic priorities.
“So much of what we’ve got to get done, from climate change to health care to changing tax code, is going to require us to change the way our politics work. Because for the decade that I’ve been in the Senate, it largely hasn’t worked,” Bennet told reporters Thursday.
He’s just one of many 2020 candidates tying legislative action they want to take on climate change with the need to overhaul how money is spent on electoral campaigns and lobbying. Their thinking goes: As the oil, gas and coal industries pump money into political campaigns, these fossil-fuel interests have been able to forestall meaningful legislation to slow climate change.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is, similarly, putting campaign finance reform at the center of his presidential bid in part to address the rising temperatures that are contributing to wildfires in his home state. “Tackling money in politics is the first step toward addressing climate change, skyrocketing health care costs, income inequality — and all of the biggest crises of our time,” Bullock wrote on Twitter shortly after announcing his candidacy.
And in interviews, speeches and social media posts, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., have also lamented the increased role rich donors are playing in politics and how it is forestalling action on climate change.
“You want a government that’s going to be responsive on climate change, fast, now, see it as urgent?” yet another Democratic candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, said at the “We the People Summit” summit in April. “Not so long as the oil industry is calling the shots in this town.”
The attention Democratic candidates are paying to the issue of money in politics is due in part to the swarms of progressive activists who have shown up at campaign events and pressed hopefuls, such as O’Rourke and former vice president Joe Biden, to commit to refuse campaign donations from lobbyists or executives in the oil, gas or coal business.
So far, the pressure has worked on Biden and O’Rourke. They and the vast majority of the 2020 Democratic field — 18 in total, according to the anti-fossil fuel nonprofit advocacy group Oil Change US — have signed the “No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.”
Bennet’s plan in particular calls for a lifetime ban on lobbying for former members of Congress, a crackdown on coordination between candidates and ostensibly independent “super PACs” and a constitutional amendment to overturn what many Democrats see as the biggest step back in campaign finance reform in a generation — the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
Citing the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech, the high court in 2010 ruled to stop the federal government from limiting the political spending of corporations and labor unions through groups independent of electoral campaigns. Ever since, many Democrats say, “dark money” groups have uncorked a spigot of political spending into electoral politics.
Energy firms in particular have made good use of the new avenues for political spending. According to End Citizens United, a political action committee that opposes the Supreme Court decision, oil and gas companies accounted for 10 of the 17 largest corporate contributions to outside groups during the 2018 election.
The Citizens United decision, according to its opponents, has had a measurable effect on how willing Republicans are to support climate legislation now that fossil fuel companies, many of which oppose strict carbon-pollution rules, have more leverage over members of Congress.
“The fossil fuel industry snuffed out Senate bipartisanship on climate change,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Wednesday at an event at the National Press Club held by End Citizen United and the League of Conservation Voters. “Weaponization of that new unlimited dark money powered by the fossil fuel industry cost us a decade of climate progress.”
Few members of Congress have harped on this message — connecting the lack of climate legislation to the freer flow of money in politics — longer than Whitehouse. He is not running for president, but he urged 2020 candidates to pick up his argument.
“Any Democrat is going to be buoyed by the public pressure on this,” he said.