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Why Citizens United Must Be Overturned

RP Siegel | Wednesday August 1st, 2012 | 4 Comments

The door is rapidly closing on Democracy in America. Corporate interests, working in tandem with corrupt politicians, are busily locking the doors, and sealing up the cracks around the windows, to keep anything other than the profit motives of giant corporations, social priorities of powerful lobbies, and the investment interests of the ultra-rich from driving the legislative agenda in Congress.

A few cracks remain as yet unsealed, but at this point, the question has become, who is left on the inside, still willing to do anything about the desperate pleas that make it through from everyday people?

Last week, a petition containing just under two million signatures was delivered to the Senate, asking them to overturn the Extreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The Citizens United decision was a clear stroke of judicial activism, a legacy of the disastrous George W Bush administration, that lives on through its judicial appointments. The ruling allows corporations to make, without disclosure, unlimited financial contributions to political candidates under the First Amendment, based on the idea that giving money is a form of speech. It makes you wonder where this court’s apparent inability to distinguish action from speech might show up next.  Perhaps shooting someone you don’t like will become permissible as free speech. We already have “Stand Your Ground” laws in several states, which essentially guarantee this right and perhaps indicates the way things are headed if conservatives get their way.

The Citizens United case, has been said to have put the finishing touches on transforming our system from a “one person one vote” system to a “one dollar one vote” system.

The petition was submitted to a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary committee responsible for Constitutional matters. There is a bill being introduced by several Senate democrats for legislation to overturn the Supreme Court decision, but after the Court’s recent refusal to reconsider the decision, despite voter-based initiatives in Montana, Colorado and Wisconsin, it appears that the only way to overturn this decision is by taking the long road of Constitutional amendment. That process has begun, the amendment being co-sponsored by five senators: Bennet (D-CO), Harkin (D-IA), Durban (D-IL), Schumer (D-NY) and Whitehouse (D-RI), who apparently still remember some portion of what they learned in high school civics class.

This issue is important to anyone interested in sustainability for several reasons. First of all, moving to a sustainable future is going to involve significant change. As you well know, those reaping fortunes from the status quo, are now in a position to invest unlimited cash, which they have lots of, to make sure that things do not change, despite what might be best for all of us.  Second, the unprecedented concentration of wealth and the concomitant level of inequality that we are experiencing today, is actually destroying our economy. As former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich argues in his book Aftershock: the Next Economy & America’s Future, the diminishing purchasing power of the middle class came about as new policies designed to increase the wealth of the already wealthy, led to a complete meltdown of the global economy. This, in turn, has resulted in significantly reduced economic activity, since the mega-rich tend to spend a much lower proportion of their income than middle class folks do. Now that the middle class has no money to spend, the economy continues to falter. This impoverishment of the middle class is the main reason that the recovery is moving so slowly.

Earlier this month, California joined Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland and New Mexico in calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Court’s ruling. Given California’s size and population, this adds considerable weight to the cause. According to the process spelled out in the Constitution, the amendment needs to be ratified by 38 states or three-fourths of the total.

What is actually needed from the amendment is not just the reversal of the Citizens United ruling, but a comprehensive overhaul of campaign finance rules. As this NY Times column points out, Citizens United was really only the final nail in the coffin of our democracy. Much of the damage was done by earlier legislation, such as the establishment of tax-exempt 527 groups, named after the section in the tax law regulating campaign contributions, which did not require disclosure of contributors, followed by the establishment of Super-PACs, which allowed unlimited donations, but still required disclosure of who contributed. At that point corporations were still reluctant to make contributions, for fear of consumer backlash. But Citizens United, which eliminated the disclosure requirement, removed that final impediment.

Clearly, our system has become rotten inside and out. The only way to fix it is to radically overhaul the campaign finance rules, and separate the Church of Money from the State, as our forefathers intended. In a system where agencies created to protect us, such as the FDA, have repeatedly shown their complete willingness to put the public at risk in service to their corporate overlords, are overseen by a Supreme Court, staffed by justices such as Clarence Thomas, who refused to recuse himself when ruling on cases involving his former company, Monsanto, despite a clear conflict of interest, or Antonin Scalia, who has said he really isn’t sure whether a hand-held rocket launcher capable of downing a jetliner should be considered a handgun or not, it is clear that lobbyists have all but taken over our system.

Of course, there have been natural cycles, wherein concentration of wealth, combined with corporate influence have waxed and waned. The last time it peaked was just before the Great Depression, but that was nothing like today. FDR reversed that trend with a series of reforms that initiated the great prosperity that reached from the 50’s to the 80’s, by raising taxes on the wealthy and including the middle class in the grand bargain.

Perhaps most egregious example of special interests gone wild is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. This well-funded group is essentially the advanced strike force for the corporate army that is currently laying siege to Washington. The self-described “non-partisan” group has one Democrat and 103 Republicans in its membership. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. For more information of how ALEC works and how our system has suffered as a result, check out this video.

[Image Credit: 401kcalculator.org, Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • John Guzek

    It is ultimately up to Congress and state legislators to remedy the damage done by the disastrous Supreme Court ruling in 2010. This is why we need to stand together in the push for a constitutional amendment to restore our constitutional rights and give the democracy back to the people. Sign the petition for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling (www.democracyisforpeople.org).

  • Demos

    Well written, but one point to consider: the Citizens United decision is one small piece of the corrupting and destructive power the Supreme Court has granted to corporations through dozens of decisions dating back at least as far as 1886 (http://reclaimdemocracy.org/personhood/#significant). To call for a decade-long process just to return to the status quo of 2010 is pointless. Corporate personhood must be revoked in full. So please don’t suggest one Court decision is the problem–it is one small layer of a deeply rooted one.

    • RPSiegel

       I agree with you, as I said above, “What is actually needed from the amendment is not just the reversal of
      the Citizens United ruling, but a comprehensive overhaul of campaign
      finance rules. As this NY Times column
      points out, Citizens United was really only the final nail in the
      coffin of our democracy. Much of the damage was done by earlier
      legislation, such as the establishment of tax-exempt 527 groups,
      named after the section in the tax law regulating campaign
      contributions, which did not require disclosure of contributors,
      followed by the establishment of Super-PACs,
      which allowed unlimited donations, but still required disclosure of who
      contributed. At that point corporations were still reluctant to make
      contributions, for fear of consumer backlash. But Citizens United, which
      eliminated the disclosure requirement, removed that final impediment.”

  • pewestlake

    RP,

    Very nice article with salient observations but I must disagree on one important point. I think the nature of legitimate campaign finance reform is too complicated and too partisan (whether we like it or not) to be properly codified in a constitutional amendment. There are two components to a successful amendment outcome — effectiveness and adoptability.

    Obviously, the amendment must be effective enough to overturn all the case law leading to Citizens United, including Buckley v. Valeo and Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific. But it must also be relatively easy to explain and defend. If the language is too partisan, it will be picked apart by opportunists until it dies. And if the language is too complicated, it will have so many dangling threads that a tug on any one of them could unravel the whole cloth. It’s a tight needle to thread but it’s possible with the right approach.

    So far, eleven proposals have been introduced in Congress and there are another seven being taken seriously by large numbers of citizens and/or some in the mainstream media. All of the proposals introduced in Congress and most of the others are flawed in a variety of ways, some disastrously so. There is little coordination between any of the Congresspeople or the groups behind the proposals, and that’s a mistake.

    Among the groups referred to above, Move To Amend has the best language and Free Speech For People isn’t too far behind on the legal personhood front (though it essentially leaves Buckley intact – a big no-no). You can find analyses of all the proposals at The Amendment Gazette, where we’re trying to have the conversation about the proper approach.

    http://www.amendmentgazette.com/amendment-analysis/

    Instead of opining in a vacuum from our own perches, we’re inviting all interested parties to come join the conversation, engage in the debate and critique the critiques we have offered. And I’ll be honest — when I say “we,” I mean me and one other guy from Move To Amend with a little help from our MTA allies. But, please, the more the merrier. Guest authors welcome!

    The good news is that MTA and FSFP have begun to coordinate with each other a bit. But there needs to be more consensus on the right approach and that can only happen when enough people feel they’ve had their say and are satisfied with the resulting proposal. Please visit The Gazette and check out the analyses of each approach. We don’t censor anyone (except the spammers and trolls) and we’re not afraid of sharp criticism. I encourage everyone who cares about this issue to look at the proposals, the analyses, the many articles and rebuttals and generally become an even more informed citizen, because if you already care, you’re also among the most informed in the nation. Your knowledge and passion can help save not just the country, but the whole world.

    Thanks for your contribution, RP!

    Paul Westlake
    Proprietor, The Amendment Gazette
    Co-Founder, NYC Affiliate – Move To Amend