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Marge Baker

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Overturning Citizens United: A Movement Moment

Posted: 01/09/12 11:24 AM ET

It is no secret that our political system is corrupted by the influence of corporate money in elections. Pick any issue - financial regulation, energy policy, healthcare reform - and its problems can be traced back to unspoken quid quo pro agreements between politicians and their campaign backers.

Polling on the issue is striking. Despite a fiercely partisan national climate, Americans agree across the board that limits should be set on money in politics. Following the landmark Supreme Court case that removed a bulk of those limits, Citizens United v. FEC (2010), a poll taken by ABC News/Washington Post revealed that eighty percent of Americans opposed the ruling. Seventy-two percent stated that they would support efforts by Congress to reinstate the restrictions that were stripped away by the decision.

Under Citizens United any meaningful legislative workaround would suffer the same fate of the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, key portions of which were overturned by the Roberts Court. In fact, there now remains only one option for addressing America's campaign finance problem, and a galvanizing one at that: we must amend the Constitution.

To date, the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. The first ten, the Bill of Rights, were proposed in the 1st United States Congress. Since that time almost all of the major advances in our nation's path towards becoming a "more perfect union" have included constitutional amendments.

In the 20th century, the amendment process institutionalized many of the practices we today take for granted - women's suffrage, the advancement of civil rights, and the lowering of the voting age, among others. These movements were not successful overnight; nor did they end when their respective amendments were passed. Yet the amendment process provides movements with milestone moments of both judicial and cultural importance. Precedents are re-written, and progress is made tangible.

Today in the 21st century, people across the country are once again seeking to exercise their right to amend the Constitution to restore integrity to our democratic process.

With Supreme Court decisions resting on broad interpretations of corporate rights, local, state, and federal bodies are passing resolutions and introducing legislation that challenge the current narrative of undue corporate political influence.

On November 8th in Montana, the citizens of Missoula voted in favor of a resolution rejecting corporate personhood with 75% of the vote. Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, who introduced the referendum, made clear that the vote "affirms what we were all seeing in the streets, which is the average Missoulian wanted to have their voice heard."

A month ago, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the end of corporate dominance over the civic process. In the words of Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, "These are how American amendments move forward from the grassroots, when Americans say enough is enough!"

On December 9th, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley became the first sitting state attorney general to publicly support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling, writing "the voice of the American people should not be diluted or trampled on by corporations under the guise of the First Amendment."

Just this past week, the New York City Council voted in favor of a resolution opposing the decision, joining the growing ranks of city councils to do so - like Duluth, MN, Oakland, CA, Albany, NY, and Boulder, CO.

Responding to this widespread sentiment, the 112th Congress has seen multiple resolutions introduced calling for constitutional remedies to the Citizens United decision. Their diversity of approaches reflects the robust and serious debate Americans are having on what constitutional approach would best solve the problem.

Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) introduced an amendment with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative John Conyers (D-MI). The resolution has 27 co-sponsors, because, in Edwards' words, "the Supreme Court has left us with no choice." Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Representative Betty Sutton (D-OH) introduced companion measures in the Senate and the House (S.J.RES.29 and H.J.RES.86) restoring Congress and the states' constitutional authority to regulate the raising and spending of money on elections. The Senate resolution so far has an impressive 18 co-sponsors. Similarly, Representative Ted Deutsch (D-FL) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced companion resolutions (H.J.RES.90 and S.J.RES.33) providing, among other things, that the rights protected under the Constitution do not extend to for-profit corporations and prohibiting such corporations from engaging in electioneering.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), along with 15 co-sponsors, including Representative Walter Jones (R-NC), introduced H.J. RES.88 providing that the words "people, person, or citizen" as used in the Constitution do not apply to corporations. And H.J.RES.97 introduced by Representative John Yarmuth (D- KY) and Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) provides that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment and authorizes Congress to enact a mandatory public financing system. Comparable amendments have also been introduced by Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Representative Kurt Schrader (D-OR).

As befits the seriousness of a constitutional remedy, the varied proposals are sparking a conversation within Congress over the most appropriate way to amend the Constitution to reverse Citizens United. Even more importantly, the groundswell of public disapproval of the current system has begun to materialize in the form of local and statewide initiatives. With the 2012 election cycle and its toxic money on the horizon, there is no doubt that this movement is set to gain momentum as time goes on.

Under the banner of United for the People, Public Citizen, Move to Amend, Common Cause, Free Speech for People, the Center for Media and Democracy and People For the American Way and nearly 50 other endorsing organizations, with millions of activists around the country, are organizing an array of events to mark the January 21st second anniversary of the Citizens United decision to shed light on the need for constitutional remedies. Activists can sign up to organize or participate in an event at United4thePeople.org.

When signing the 24th Amendment that outlawed the Poll Tax, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed, "A change in our Constitution is a serious event." Johnson was right. Amending the Constitution is not to be done lightly, but the issue of corporate influence over our governing system is a serious problem. Hopefully one day, a future president will echo Johnson's other remark upon signing the amendment: that "the beneficiaries of this amendment are the people of this land."


Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, will be appearing on the Dylan Ratigan show January 9th (4 P.M. EST) to speak about the growing movement against the Citizens United decision and the need for constitutional remedies.