Saturday, January 21, 2012

Breaking down Citizens United

Published January 18, 2012 in Real Change:

There's no such thing as a corporate citizen; only people deserve the right to free speech

Should corporations have the same rights as human beings, and also the right to buy elections? Two years ago, in its landmark Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court ruled yes. An overwhelming majority of Americans, however, say no. In growing numbers, they are calling for a constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not people and that the unchecked flow of cash does not equal free speech.

The undue influence of corporate and financial interests is deeply detrimental to our democracy. As we mark its second anniversary, the consequences of Citizens United are already painfully clear. The mid-term 2010 election saw record $4 billion spending, and the 2012 race is poised to leave this spending spree in the dust. Already, the parade of attack ads and toxic rhetoric has commenced its ugly march across our TV screens.

Overturning a Supreme Court decision is no easy process. It requires a constitutional amendment, which must be approved by three-fourths of state legislatures or by ratifying conventions in three-fourths of states. However, such an amendment would enjoy broad support across the political spectrum. According to a poll by Hart Research Associates, this support includes nearly four in five, or 79 percent, of Americans. This kind of popular backing has allowed for the swift passage of constitutional amendments in the past, including the amendments to end Prohibition and to lower the voting age to eighteen as teenagers were drafted into the Vietnam War.

Joining with state lawmakers across the country, Washington State Senator Adam Kline has introduced a bill to abolish corporate personhood. His Senate Joint Memorial 8007 states that Citizens United “has created a new and unequal playing field between human beings and corporations with respect to campaign financing, negating over a century of precedent prohibiting corporate contributions” to campaigns.

In the meantime, there are other effective ways to reduce the role of money in politics. One of these is to allow for clean elections, typically by offering public funds in exchange for an agreement to limit private donations. Clean elections already exist in several states, including Maine and Arizona. Modeling their proposal on these successful state initiatives, a bipartisan group of Congress members has introduced the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA) to create similar reforms at the federal level. With backers ranging from members of the Tea Party to the Sierra Club, the bill would allow federal candidates to run for office without relying upon large private donations. By freeing candidates from the pressures of constant fundraising, FENA would enable them to get back to the work of serving the people who elect them.

Transparency is another key part of the equation. After Citizens United, corporations and financial institutions can anonymously channel millions through Political Action Committees and 501(c)(4) organizations, which are classified as non-profit social welfare organizations. These groups—often with civic-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and Citizens United—can pool unlimited funds toward ads without disclosing where the money comes from. The DISCLOSE Act seeks to remedy this by requiring organizations involved in political campaigns to reveal the identities of major donors. Though the bill was blocked in the Senate, more progress can be found at the state level. In April 2011, the State of Washington passed legislation to enhance campaign disclosure requirements. Shedding light on money in politics will strengthen our democracy by helping voters to make informed choices.

In an era of angry partisanship, the poll numbers show that most of us agree on the need to take money out of politics. While ordinary Americans struggle to cope with the economic downturn, our nation’s capitol should not remain awash in special interest money. The more energy candidates spend pursuing campaign dollars and courting lobbyists, the further the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans recede into the background. By ensuring that our leaders are accountable to the people who elect them, not to corporate sponsors, we can make sure that they put the well-being of the people first.

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