Citizen Action Monitor

U.S. citizens and politicians unite to overturn “Citizens United” ruling

Van Jones explains how they’re doing it

No 521 Posted by fw, July 10, 2012

This post is excerpted from Chapter 7 of Van Jones’ new book, Rebuild the Dream, in which Jones advances a multifaceted strategy for fixing America’s damaged democracy and restoring the American Dream of the good life – steady meaningful work, financial security, housing in a safe community, stable family life, and retiring with dignity.

In Chapter 7, Occupy the Inside Game, Jones writes: “As corrupt as the [political] system has become, we simply cannot refuse to play the Inside Game, even as we work to change it.” (p. 158).

He makes the case for three tactics to change the system:

  1. Change the Game: Fix our democracy by getting big money and corporations out of the political system
  2. Play the Game: Put proposals and candidates on the ballot who will defend the 99% and help rebuild the American Dream
  3. Win the Game: Force both parties to be better champions for the 99% in the same was that the Tea Party movement ultimately forced both parties to be better champions for the worst of the 1%.

Regarding the first tactic, Jones says that a crucial step in his plan to “get big money and corporations out of the political system” is to overturn the “Citizens United” ruling. (For background information on this ruling, read Wikipedia’s entry, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission).

Which brings us to the subject of this post –

Playing the Inside Game: U.S. Citizens and Politicians Unite to Overturn “Citizens United” Ruling by Van Jones in Rebuild the Dream, Chapter 7: Occupy the Inside Game, (pp160-165)

Overturning Citizens United will take an amendment of the US Constitution

Congress cannot simply overturn the ruling, though, since the Supreme Court invoked the constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Therefore, we need a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. The need to overturn the decision grew in popularity the Occupy protests. A famous sign in Zuccotti Park read: “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” In a December 16, 2011 letter to the Austin Chronicle, entitled “Occupy the Future,” Michael Ventura wrote:

Until the Civil War, the Supreme Court justified slavery. The 13th and 14th amendments (1865 and 1868) changed that. Until 1920, American women were denied the vote. The 19th amendment changed that. Until 1964, Southern states enforced segregation by tactics such as poll taxes. The 24th amendment made those tactics illegal. Through an amendment to the constitution, we can change the legal status of corporations. We can do it now.

The amendment would need to establish that for-profit corporations do not have First Amendment speech rights. The amendment would not limit freedom of the press for corporations, or it could be drafted to exclude media corporations carrying out broadcasting or publishing. Amending the constitutions is not (and should not be) easy. But it can be done, as history makes clear. The 23rd and 26th amendments (establishing voting rights for District of Columbia residents, and setting the minimum voting age at eighteen) were passed by Congress and ratified in less than a year. (That said, it took 203 years between the original proposal and the ultimate ratification of our most recent amendments, the 27th which impacts Congressional salaries).

Mechanism and strategy for amending the U.S. Constitution

The mechanism for amending the U.S. Constitution requires both the House and Senate to pass the proposal with two-thirds majority; then the proposed amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures. The key to success is a strong foundation of popular support. Right now, there is enormous anti-corporate sentiment, uniting people across party lines: 85 percent of Americans feel that corporations have too much power in our democracy. A campaign begun at the state level would make sense: it would provide leverage to push Congress and lay the groundwork for winning the thirty-eight states that are required for ratification.

Campaigns by political watchdog organizations to organize citizens and work with legislators

By early 2012, the battle had begun somewhat. Nonprofit political watchdog groups Public Citizen and Common Cause are leading campaigns to organize citizens and work with legislators. Common Cause, whose chairman is economist Robert Reich, is promoting ballot measures that give voters the opportunity to instruct members of Congress to take action to reverse Citizens United.

Members of Congress busy introducing their own Constitutional amendments

Meanwhile, members of Congress have already introduced a number of Constitutional amendments, some of which do not specifically address the ruling that corporations have free speech rights. On September 12, 2011, less than a week before the Occupiers arrived at Zuccotti Park, Representative Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) introduced H.J. Res 78, which would clarify the authority of Congress and the states to regulate the expenditure of funds for political activity by corporations. Similarly, in November 2011, Democratic senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Michael Bennet of Colorado proposed a Constitutional amendment (S.J. Res 29) to give federal and state congresses the authority to regulate campaign contributions and expenditures.

Other proposals do reverse corporate personhood. In November 2011, Florida representative Ted Deutch introduced the Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy (OCCUPIED) amendment. It would ban for-profit corporations from contributing to campaign spending and explicitly clarify that corporations are not people and cannot be protected by the Constitution. Vermont Independent senator Bernie Sanders introduced a companion measure to the Senate known as the Saving American Democracy Amendment.

Nonpartisan group Free Speech for People produced the People’s Rights Amendments, introduced by Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. In December 2011, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota introduced the Get Corporate Money Out of Politics Constitutional amendment. Both declare that corporations are not people.

In December 2011, Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky and Walter Jones of North Carolina introduced a bipartisan amendment that would establish that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment. It also makes Election Day a legal holiday and enables Congress to establish a public financing system that would serve as the sole source of funding for federal elections.

Other steps that can be taken – Public financing for federal elections

Short of an amendment there are other steps that can be taken. One way is to address the issue of public financing for federal elections, which would at least give candidates a base of decent funding to offset whatever corporations choose to spend. Other legislative approaches also could minimize the damage, such as requiring disclosure of the sources of political spending and requiring that a majority of shareholders must approve any corporate electoral-related expenditure.

Common Cause has promoted the DISCLOSE (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) Act, which would force corporations and unions to publicly stand by their ads (the top five donors would be listed in the screen). The DISCLOSE Act, as passed by the House in 2010 would:

  • Prohibit corporations that receive federal contracts worth more than $50,000 from spending money to influence federal elections;
  • Prohibit companies that have received and not paid back funds from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) from spending money on elections; and
  • Prevent foreign-based corporations from spending money on elections. Companies that have 20 percent foreign voting shares or a majority of foreign directors would also be forbidden from spending money on elections.

Although the DISCLOSE Act passed in the House, a Republican-led filibuster blocked it repeatedly from passing ion the Senate.

A new organization called United Re:public is building a coalition from across the political spectrum to counter special interests in politics. Its strategy is to make the grants supporting people and organizations with viable solutions. United Re:public recently merged with Rootstrikers, a group founded by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, and with Get Money Out campaign, an effort started by MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan, both of which share the goal of ending the domination of Big Money over the political process.

(I have added the hyperlinks to the original text from Van Jones’ book).
Fair Use Notice: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing

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