Start calling the White House while you read this, and I’ll explain why you need to keep that switchboard well lit. Few people fully understand the greatest threat to democracy today is the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. It guaranteed a radical increase in the cost of running for elected office by protecting the right of free speech for corporate money.
In January of 2010, the Supreme Court struck down limits on “electioneering communications” supporting or opposing candidates for office 30 days before primary elections and 60 days before general elections. They argue these limits, established as part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 violated the First Amendment and were unconstitutional. Their argument treats corporations as people, and takes bold leaps beyond previous court decisions.
In the wake of the decision, President Obama chastised the court:
“This [Citizens United] ruling opens the floodgates for an unlimited amount of special interest money into our democracy. It gives the special interest lobbyists new leverage to spend millions on advertising to persuade elected officials to vote their way – or to punish those who don’t. That means that any public servant who has the courage to stand up to the special interests and stand up for the American people can find himself or herself under assault come election time. Even foreign corporations may now get into the act.”
Obama stated his intention to overturn the decision:
“When this ruling came down, I instructed my administration to get to work immediately with Members of Congress willing to fight for the American people to develop a forceful, bipartisan response to this decision. We have begun that work, and it will be a priority for us until we repair the damage that has been done.”
At that time, both houses of Congress were comfortably controlled by Democrats, but attempts to craft legislation floundered in October 2010. The impact of the Citizens United decision was seen in the mid-term elections when a number of dozens of “tea party” candidates won seats. Various corporations and action committees spent millions to install friendly political allies. A record $300 million was spent in the mid-term campaigns, and the upcoming election in 2012 is expected to break all previous records for spending. Obama himself has set a fund raising goal of one billion dollars for his own campaign.
On January 23, 2010, there was a promise to oppose this trend on the presidential blog:
“In this week’s address, President Barack Obama addresses the Supreme Court decision to further empower corporations to use their financial clout to directly influence elections and vows that “as long as I’m your President, I’ll never stop fighting to make sure that the most powerful voice in Washington belongs to you.”
In 2012, when another third of our Senate and the entire House of Representatives will be decided, the influence of corporate cash will be immeasurably greater. According to Alex Knott of rollcall.com, at least 3 dozen new political action committees “have registered this year as independent expenditure organizations, a designation that gives them the option of using unprecedented types of funds in the 2012 elections.” Included among them is Citizens United―the group that took their case against the Campaign Reform Act of 2002 all the way to the Supreme Court, where important sections were found to be unconstitutional. The court’s decision only affected spending supporting or opposing candidates, but stated that “Citizens United has not made direct contributions to candidates, and it has not suggested that the court” should overturn the ban on campaign contributions.
However, at least one federal judge seeks to extend their argument to allow direct corporate contributions to candidates. Ruling in a criminal case in Virginia, U.S. District Judge James Cacheris found that:
“For better or worse, Citizens United held that there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation with respect to political speech. Thus, if an individual can make direct contributions . . . a corporation cannot be banned from doing the same thing.”
It is disconcerting that our Department of Justice has not yet appealed his ruling. In fact, after some initial rumblings of opposition to the Citizens United ruling when it was first announced, our elected officials have failed to act on it. Polls have found that reversing the decision enjoys bipartisan support with at least 80% of the US electorate.
In the 17th District of Illinois, home to Galesburg where I live, I watched Phil Hare, of the Progressive Caucus, get beaten by PAC money spent to oppose him. Signs went up without even mentioning Hare’s opponent, Bobby Schilling. Hare still carried Galesburg, where he is well known, but lost the election by a sizable margin thanks directly to the Citizens United decision.
We should ask, why has Obama relented in his opposition to Citizens United decision? When his party controlled both the houses of Congress, why didn’t he publicly address them and demand an amendment be sent to the states for ratification?
John F. Kennedy was not afraid to do this in 1962, and the result was a constitutional amendment that overturned the poll tax after decades of frustrated attempts in the House and Senate. Kennedy asked Congress for the 2/3 majority needed in both Houses to send the amendment to the states for ratification. The 24th Amendment was sent to the states and ratified on January 23, 1964.
We have only one chance to assert that corporations are not people and money is not speech. The time is now, or we will be forever silenced. The use of the bully pulpit by John F. Kennedy, and the speedy passage of the 24th Amendment shows us the way. Several groups have been circulating petitions urging the passage of an amendment, Public Citizen at citizen.org and “Move To Amend” at movetoamend.org offer similar programs.
Move To Amend has sponsored dozens of Independence Day parties across the country. Declare your independence from money in elections. Phone the President and demand his support at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414. Find out more at http://realo.us.