My short bio: Derek Cressman is author or When Money Talks. He began working professionally to reduce big money in politics in 1995 with such nonpartisan organizations as Common Cause and the Public Interest Research Group. As US PIRG’s democracy program director, he was the first professional advocate in Washington, DC, to support a constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending.

As director of Common Cause’s Amend 2012 campaign, Derek was the architect behind voter instruction measures in Montana, Colorado, Massachusetts, and California, where voters demanded Congress pass an amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.

My Proof: twitter @DerekCressman website:

I'm signing off now, but will check back at 5 eastern to answer any late questions that come it. you can check out for more details on the book, and download three free bonus chapters at that provide more lengthy answers to some of these excellent questions. Thanks, Derek

Comments: 91 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

hoosakiwi10 karma

I hear a lot about Citizens United, but it seems like money has been influencing American politics since long before the Supreme Court's ruling in 2010. Does overturning Citizens United do enough to deal with the big problems in our government? It seems like it merely returns us to a system where special interests can still pull the strings, but the amounts being spent are smaller.

Also, what do you say to the free speech arguments that many people point to when defending the Citizens United ruling?

DerekCressman5 karma

There is a free bonus chapter to the book (available here ) that documents both the long history of money influence politics but also the long history of congress and state legislatures passing laws to address that. Many of these laws worked until they were gutted by the Supreme Court, which began in 1976 with Buckley v. Valeo -- long before the Citizens Untied ruling. So, you're correct that we need to do much more than simply overturn the Citizens United ruling and the constitutional amendments that I detail in the book would do that.

hoosakiwi2 karma

It seems like passing one constitutional amendment, let alone many is going to take a lot of time and is an uphill battle. Is there anything that can be done now?

If you just look at things happening right now, we see a presidential election projected to cost billions of dollars, a political system that makes it difficult for the average person to enter a race and protects incumbents, and a Congress that will push legislation that doesn't necessarily reflect the desires of the vast majority of Americans. Heck, Congress doesn't even read the bills half the time...just look at the latest Omnibus bill.

DerekCressman3 karma

There are lots of good policy ideas that could theoretically be passed now (public financing of campaigns, better disclosure, free airtime, etc.) The book lists several. But, we shouldn't kid ourselves that there is any quick fix to the very deep hole we find ourselves in.

The reality is that nothing will pass Congress (not even the tiniest most incremental reform) until voters make clear they will unelect politicians who are blocking these reforms -- which WILL happen. Once it does, all of this becomes possible, including a constitutional amendment.

hoosakiwi8 karma

This AMA is frustrating. I know you want to sell your book, but it would be great if you actually answered my questions instead of directing me to your book and giving me a one to two sentence response that doesn't actually answer anything at all.

DerekCressman-4 karma

Sorry, but one of the main points of the book is that we all have limited time to engage in politics. That's one reason to keep answers short -- and, its a good reason to limit paid advertising from political campaigns that want to absorb all of that time, leaving citizens with little or no bandwidth to seek out ideas on their own.

DerekCressman-4 karma

As to your second question, there's a whole chapter in the book that details the difference between free speech and paid speech. The short answer is that the First Amendment means there should be no limits on what you can think, say, or publish (for others to purchase with their own money.) But, that's different on what you spend via advertising to foist your ideas on people who don't want to hear them.

ege35 karma

How do you respond to people who argue that money is free speech and political campaigns should be able to raise and spend unlimited money?

DerekCressman-3 karma

They are wrong

DerekCressman10 karma

I guess a more detailed answer would be to agree with Justice Stevens when he wrote that money is property, it is not speech. More profoundly, we need to remember that we enhance political dialogue and debate by limiting actual speech all the time. We limit how much time a citizen can speak at a city council meeting, or a member of Congress can speak on the floor of the House. We limit the number of pages a lawyer can submit to the Supreme Court -- these limits ensure that the listener has time to consider opposing points of view and not be overwhelmed by just one (wealthy) viewpoint

JamesTJohnson1 karma

Why are they wrong? Shouldn't I be able to buy a political ad supporting the candidate or issue of my choice? How is that not obviously political speech?

DerekCressman3 karma

You absolutely should be able to buy a political ad supporting a candidate or issue of your choice. But, you shouldn't be able to buy thousands of ads that displace other people's speech any more than you could march into someone's living room and give them a lecture on politics that they don't want to listen to.

JamesTJohnson1 karma

Why shouldn't one be able to buy thousands of ads? I don't recall any quantity-based limitation on the freedom of speech.

And I don't see whose speech is being "displaced". If I want to purchase airtime on a major network or radio I'll pay the same as any other candidate. And it's not like there are only so many ads out there.

And buying multiple ads is quite a bit different from invading someone's house and lecturing them. I don't know why you think that's in any way relevant.

DerekCressman1 karma

We have lots of quantity based limits on speech. Go to your city council meeting and you'll be allowed to speak for 1-2 minutes during public comment, but shut off after that. Listen to members speak on the floor of Congress and notice that their time expires. Supreme Court Judges limit both the minutes lawyers can present to them, and the number pages they can submit in briefs. Twitter limits your quantity of speech to 140 characters per tweet. Newspapers limit words in letters to the editor. Like judges, legislators, and readers, voters have limited time to consider political arguments -- if you take up all of that time, it leaves no room for other voices.

SmegmaSundae4 karma

Clearly, TV media outlets have a vested interest in keeping the status quo of our campaign finance system so they never discuss how it presents a huge problem for our democracy. I had only ever heard about Citizens United way back when Bernie Sanders was on Real Time with Bill Maher ~2 years ago. How can I convince people in my own social circle that this truly is the number 1 issue our country faces?

DerekCressman3 karma

News media outlets may unwittingly be bringing their own demise as our political system increasingly tells people they don't matter -- so why would they bother watching TV news or subscribing to a newspaper? In my experience, people absolutely know we have a crisis about money in politics. Where they need convincing (or educating) is that it is a problem that is intentionally caused by the Supreme Court and that we can indeed do something about it. Ironically, the worse things get, the more people will move beyond cynicism and into action

meowhahaha4 karma

Probably too late, but I was a social activist for years. Eventually I just got burned out. Our state senator refused to meet with members of NOW unless we used a fake organization name, our governor raids the environmental fund to pay fines for his unethical behavior, the president I busted my ass to elect is sending drones to kill innocent people and gave the ok to track anyone through anything.

It's seriously depressing.

How do you deal with being discouraged, wanting to give up and just start watching junk TV so you don't have to think about it? I am trying to avoid the news, but obviously it's not working because I'm on your AMA.

I feel like the lowest ranking person on the Death Star, finally realizing I should be working with the rebels.

DerekCressman2 karma

I guess I would say that we no longer have the luxury of being depressed and burned out. We're in serious trouble. But, we're a lot better off than Nelson Mandela was in South Africa, or Lech Walensa in Poland's Solidarity movement, or pro-democracy activists in Russia under Stalin. Maybe you should check out a new effort called the #RebelAlliance on twitter -- they're all over your star wars analogy. Seriously, though, if George Washington and his ragtag band of patriots could whip the British redcoats, then we can beat five old guys in black robes at the Supreme Court. They aren't as tough as they think they are.

papipapichulo3 karma

  1. Hi Derek, should I as an individual be allowed to spend money to express my speech about politics and candidates 30 days before an primary election and 60 days before a general election?

Couple of questions really

  1. Should planned parenthood be allowed to spend its money to express their ideas about politics related to abortion and contraceptive care?

  2. Should government be given the power to limit speech based on its content, if that speech had a cost attached to it: such as; billboards, tv ads, flyers, writings on shirts etc...?

Thank you

DerekCressman0 karma

Hi Papipapichula, These are very good questions.

1) any individual should be allowed to spend a limited amount of money to advertise speech about politics, candidates, sports, poetry, whenever they want. And they should be able to sell an unlimited number of books/newspapers/movies/etc to readers who want to buy that speech. An individual should not be able to spend so much on advertising that speech that they reduce the opportunities for other people to be heard -- and given that we all have very limited time, this is a real concern.

Second 1) As a non-profit corporation chartered in part for political purposes, Planned Parenthood should be able to spend its money to support ideas about politics related to its mission. It should not (and still to this day cannot) make a direct contribution to a candidate -- who might not use the funds to promote messages consistent with the organization's mission. If Planned Parenthood's paid advertisements attack or support candidates for office, then it should fund them with contributions from individuals that are limited in size and disclosed through a political committee.

  1. I think it's reasonable for government to limit some content on billboards (pornography and tobacco advertisements for instance.) I do not think the government should be able to restrict political speech in any forum based upon its content, but it should apply the same content-neutral limits upon funding advertisements on any forum.

spotocrat3 karma

Derek, why did Prop 49 did not go on the CA ballot the first time around?

DerekCressman3 karma

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association was afraid of what voters would say, so they sued. The CA Supreme Court made a monumental mistake by removing Prop 49 from the ballot by a 6-1 ruling. They admitted they were completely wrong to do so last week, also by a 6 to 1 ruling -- but now the court has the hubris to ask the legislature (and the hundreds of activists who supported this) that they need to go back and pass another law to put it back on the ballot. It's judicial activism on steroids.

creightt3 karma

What makes you hopeful that we can ratify an amendment and pass other legislative solutions to ensure government by the people?

DerekCressman-1 karma

Roughly 80% of the country thinks Citizens United is wrong and should be reversed. That's a rare level of super-majority support for any issue in our history. Plus, the intellectual case for Citizens United is terribly weak. It is inevitable that it will fall, the only question is how long that will take and how much damage it will wreak in the meantime.

sp1063 karma

What is a bookbook?

DerekCressman1 karma

A bookbook is a typo -- similar to a cookbook but not quite as enticing. I look forward to checking them out at IKEA!

creightt3 karma

What are some opportunities for people to engage in the fight against big money in 2016?

DerekCressman1 karma

Every presidential candidate and US Senate candidate should be asked about whether they will nominate members to the Supreme Court who do not think that campaign spending is the same as free speech. Every candidate for congress should be asked if they support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Voters in CA and WA will likely have the opportunity to vote directly on the issue through voter instructions -- more localities could do that.

TzipRo3 karma

Hi Derek, I am wondering what you think about strategies to reduce the influence of big money in politics that do not focus on federal reform or amendments. For example, Represent.Us' strategy is to pass anti-corruption laws in cities and states around the country and build momentum and public pressure for national reform while protecting local communities from corruption. Why is Citizens United a priority when there are laws we can pass right now to limit the influence of special interests and lobbyists in our political system?

DerekCressman3 karma

Those things are important too. But, they won't solve the problem by themselves. In particular, they won't correct the obscene judicial activism we are seeing from the Roberts Court -- which could even move to strike down those reforms (they seem to feel free to ignore the precedents which have upheld them.) We need to, and can, build a movement capable of doing all of this -- not just argue about which single bullet to focus on.

InformedPolitics3 karma

Hi Derek, I am a writer at Political People Blog - we cover topics you are an expert at on a daily basis. What are your thoughts on Bernie Sanders. Is he the solution to the exacerbation of economic inequality, systematic corruption and political inefficiency? Or is the job too big for one man?

DerekCressman5 karma

I think it's terrific that he has put overturning Citizens United at the center of his campaign along with economic inequality. He's doing his part. But, I do think this is not something that any president is going to solve for us -- we need to roll up our sleeves as citizens and get to work.

BetterWorldMLK2 karma

It is inspiring to read about Alice Paul (yesterday was the anniversary of her birth) and the Suffragettes' work to get women the vote with an amendment. Do you think enough people/citizens are going to get passionate about corporations meddling in politics as much as they did about half of society aka women not getting to vote?

DerekCressman3 karma

I have only studied the very inspiring history of the suffragettes a bit -- I talk about the Iron Jawed angels hunger strike in jail in my book. But, I suspect that the number of people who are passionalbe about corporate money in politics is comparable today to the number of suffragettes. And, the broad level of public support is probably even greater.

bh9172 karma

Hey Derek,

Thanks for answering our questions. What states are working towards a constitutional amendment? What can supporters do in those states? And how can others start an initiative if their state isn't listed?

DerekCressman4 karma

There are 16 states (see ) that have officially gone on record in support of an Amendment. NY and NH are on the verge of doing it now. In those 16 states, supporters can work to elevate the issue further through either local or statewide voter instruction measures where voters directly call upon Congress to act. CO and MT have done this as has much of MA. CA is on the verge of doing it this year. The book details how this can happen.

DerekCressman3 karma

And, for those who are in states that haven't had their legislature pass a resolution, that's an obvious place to start. But there are other ideas too (like stamping messages on your money and writing letters to the editor.) Each chapter in the book ends with a simple tip of something you can do.

whompdonkey2 karma

Hi Derek Thanks for taking the time to answer questions.

The Citizens United case was about a non-profit organization that wanted to air an advertisement for a film they made that was critical of a politician, and was told by the government that is was illegal for them to do so.

1 By overturning this decision, aren't you advocating that the government have the legal right to censor political speech?

2 The eventual supreme court decision was that censoring political speech (especially during an election) was against the first amendment. Why do you disagree with that opinion?

3 Are you worried that allowing government censorship of political speech could ever backfire against you or the causes you support, should the reins of power be handed to politicians who disagree with you?

4 For any political opinion you hold, how much money would a politician of the opposite opinion have to spend on advertisements to cause you to vote against your opinion at the polls?


5a Do you believe people should be able to spend their own, personal money on political activism?

5b If so, won't limiting the ability of people to pool their money for political purposes create a system where only people with large personal fortunes can be heard?

DerekCressman2 karma

Thanks for these thoughtful and detailed questions. I'll number my responses to correspond to each question. 1) Nobody wants to see government censorship of speech. Any corporation or organization should be able to say anything it wants in a film or a book and people should be free to buy those books and films. If a corporation or an individual is going to fund advertisements that attack or promote a candidate for office (even if they coincidentally also promote the film) they should fund those advertisements with contributions of limited size from real people. Those requirements are not the same thing as censorship. 2) I agree that censoring political speech is against the First Amendment. But the Citizens United v. FEC ruling didn't prohibit censorship -- it prevented common sense rules that applied limits to the amount that anyone could spend to advertise their speech. 3) I worry very much that government censorship is harmful to liberty. In the third bonus chapter of the book, I point out several very real threats of censorship that we should all be focused on. 4) It would depend upon which opinion. For issues that I know relatively little about, it wouldn't take much money to provide me with incomplete and misleading information. I certainly would have more confidence in my opinion after hearing a balanced debate from both sides, just as a judge has more confidence in his opinion after reading legal briefs (that are limited in length) from all sides of a case. 5a) Of course people should be able to spend their own, personal money on political activism, just as they should be able to attend a city council meeting and speak during public comment period. But, they shouldn't be able to spend far more money than any other person on their political activism any more than they should be allowed to speak for far longer than anyone else at an public forum. 5b. Yes, a system that limits what people can contribute to political campaigns but doesn't limit what a billionaire can spend on his/her own campaign does unduly advantage candidates with large personal fortunes -- this is what we have now and is a key flaw in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling.

moneypolitcs2 karma

I have another question, though this one is not exactly great for an AMA. But I can't pass up the chance. I am a relatively new attorney who is very interested in getting into political law, particularly from the reform perspective. I actually interned with Common Cause several years ago. People like you, Larry Lessig, Rick Hasen, Trevor Potter, and organizations like Common Cause, Public Citizen, Everyvoice, Campaign Legal Center, Issue One, you're all my heroes.

Do you have any advice on what I can do as a new attorney interested in legal reform do to help or shift my career in that direction?

DerekCressman5 karma

Good for you. There is a list of organizations working on this in the appendix, which is a place to start. It's tough to find a paying job in the field of getting money out of politics -- turns out a lot of the funders that fund political work like things the way they are. Especially as a new attorney, you may have a tough time finding a litigation job in the field -- keep trying. In the meantime, volunteer with various organizations, push your local elected officials to take action, and keep learning about the issue.

spotocrat2 karma

What do you think of the Constitutional Convention method that some groups are looking at to get an amendment to overturn Citizens United?

DerekCressman3 karma

Some folks like this approach while others are wary of it. I personally believe it’s silly to argue over which approach is the best way to overturn Citizens United. Our situation is so dire that we need an “all of the above” strategy where every citizens employs every possible tactic they can imagine to take back our country from a rogue Supreme Court. America didn’t defeat the Nazi’s in WW2 by relying only on the D-Day invasion. We used economic sanctions, espionage, the Manhattan Project, alliances with other countries, and countless other tactics – we need to start thinking on that order of magnitude to deal with this internal threat to our country. So, I'm all for each citizen pursuing the approach that makes the most sense to them.

spotocrat2 karma

Hi Derek! Thank you for your work in CA. I am wondering if you think especially in other states, we will need to wait until redestricting occurs in 2020 to get Congress to vote on amending the Constitution and overturning Citizens United? How long will it take?

DerekCressman-1 karma

I don't think we should wait and I don't think we can afford to wait. If only 2 or 3 members of Congress were defeated because of their support for the Citizens United ruling, that would send a shockwave through politics that would change the current political calculus.

thalos3D1 karma

Since you believe that money in politics is a bad thing, may I assume that you would also like to ban donations from unions, non-profits, trusts, foundations and advocacy groups in general?

DerekCressman1 karma

I don't believe that money in politics is a bad thing, only really BIG and undisclosed money from a tiny group of individuals. But, yes, it is inappropriate for unions, non-profits, trusts, foundations and advocacy groups formed under 501c4 of the tax code to make direct donations to candidates and parties. Rather than using the tax advantages and other privileges of these forms of organization, the people who comprise unions, non-profits, trusts, foundations, etc should make individual, limited, and disclosed contributions to political committees who are accountable to their donors.

moneypolitcs1 karma

Hi, big fan here. Some campaign finance reform activists say asking for a constitutional convention is dangerous and might have unintended consequences, like Rick Hasen. What are your thoughts about that position?

DerekCressman2 karma

Lots of things have unintended consequences, including presidential elections and Supreme Court rulings. If Congress or states really wanted to, they could enact rules for a convention that would keep it on topic -- but so far they haven't been interested in doing that. Note that a convention is not the only way to pass an amendment -- all 27 were passed through the traditional route of congressional drafting followed by state ratifications.

BetterWorldMLK1 karma

Excited about the book! In your opinion, what is the best compromise out there in terms of restrictions on political ads, especially considering the people who argue they should be able to spend their money in any way they'd like?

DerekCressman4 karma

There should be limits on the amount that any person can contribute to, or spend on, political advertising. It's just not true that you can spend your money in any way you'd like. You can't hire someone to commit murder, or purchase cocaine, for instance.

spotocrat2 karma

What do you think of the Citizens United case -- where it was all based on how this group made an anti-Hillary "documentary," but they could not air it during the (1-month?) time period before Voting Day due to an election law? Do you think this restriction should still hold?

DerekCressman1 karma

Citizens United absolutely should have been able to air that movie whenever it wanted. Anyone should have been able to watch it as a pay-for-view cable movie (which is what it was). Where they crossed the line was in having the organization use unlimited (and corporate) funds to in-effect pay the fees for the viewers -- turning the movie into simply a long advertisement as well as in the 30 second TV ads that aired on other networks that both promoted the movie and attacked a candidate for president. Those ads should be allowed, but subject to the same contribution limits and disclosure requirements that apply to any political advertisement. John Robers could have (and almost did) issue a very narrow ruling that would have clarified these points -- instead he decided to use this case to completely dismantle campaign finance laws.

ege31 karma

Thx for doing an IAMA -- What's one thing that you learned while writing this book that surprised you?

DerekCressman5 karma

I was surprised to learn that the authority of the Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional wasn't in the original constitution, nor were the Framers of our Constitution united in thinking this was a good idea.

drdrillaz2 karma

To be fair, it wasn't explicitly stated but since Article VI of the Constitution establishes the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land, the Court held that an Act of Congress that is contrary to the Constitution could not stand. A lot of things aren't explicitly stated in the Constitution but are inferred

DerekCressman4 karma

right. But the question remains: who decides if an act of Congress is Contrary to the Constitution. The Framers of that Constitution did not this the Supreme Court had a monopoly on that decision -- state legislatures and the executive branch also must decide that.

ege31 karma

If you had the opportunity to advise Trump, Cruz, Rubio or another GOP Presidential candidate on campaign finance reform, what solutions would you recommend they purpose and support?

DerekCressman2 karma

They all say they are concerned about judicial activism, crony capitalism, corruption, and lobbyists. So, they should promise to appoint judges to the supreme court that will uphold laws passed by the congress, not strike them down as judicial activists. And, they should support an amendment to the Constitution that would place limits on how much anyone, including George Soros, can give to fund political ads. It's those ads that make legislators listen to the lobbyists, not because the lobbyist is slick and sleezy.

window51 karma

What exactly are you looking to make illegal? If people want to contribute to a cause and advertise for a specific candidate who supports that cause - will that be allowed?

DerekCressman2 karma

absolutly people should be allowed (even encouraged) to contribute to a cause and advertise for a specific candidate who supports that cause. But, there should be limits on the amount that any one person can contribute. Candidates and causes who have lots of people making small contributions would find themselves with lots of money to spend on advertising. But, more profoundly, I think we would all be better off if we spent more of our money educating ourselves through sources that are more reliable/thoughtful/honest than 30 second TV ads -- even if those will always have some role to play.

Sizzlecheeks-1 karma

Derek, I really, really, really hope you fail.

Why do you not understand that corporations are collections of human beings? Do you also think unions shouldn't be allowed to donate money to political parties?

vinnyboyescher2 karma

Yeah, why not have the same rules as any other modern democracy just like america used to have before the supreme court twisted the founding father's intentions?

DerekCressman2 karma

Sounds good to me.

DerekCressman2 karma

Sizzlecheeks, I really, really, really hope you read this reply. Of course corporations are collections of human beings, and the constitutional rights of those human beings protect them from having their assets seized or other government abuses. But that doesn't give the corporation itself constitutional rights that are above and beyond the rights of its shareholders or members. Government has, correctly in my view, chosen to give corporations privileges (such as limited liability, and favorable tax treatment for non-profits), but we can place conditions on those privileges without violating the constitutional rights of human beings. So, government can tell a charity that it can't use its tax-advantages to compete with a for-profit corporation unfairly (IE the March of Times couldn't try to compete with Ford in selling cars because Ford has to pay taxes) -- likewise we can tell for-profit corporations that they may only use their economic privileges for commerce -- not politics. If the human beings who comprise a for-profit corporation want to collectively speak about politics, they can form a political action committee and abide by the rules of political funding. And, yes, I supported the McCaing-Feingold provision that prohibited both labor unions and corporations from donating money from their treasuries to political parties (and allowed the real human beings who form corporations and labor unions to donate money to political parties and candidates via political committees established for that purpose.)