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Context of 'November 1, 2011: Democratic Senators Introduce Constitutional Amendment to Regulate Campaign Finance'

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Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Donna Edwards (D-MD) introduce legislation that, if adopted, would move to amend the Constitution to empower Congress and the states to limit corporate spending on political activities. The legislation is a direct move against the Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010). Conyers tells reporters: “Last year, the Supreme Court overturned decades of law and declared open season on our democracy. It is individual voters who should determine the future of this nation, not corporate money.” Edwards adds, “Since that flawed ruling was issued, campaign spending by outside groups including corporations surged more than four-fold to reach nearly $300 million in the 2010 election cycle.” Reversing the Citizens United ruling, she says, “is the only way to once and for all put the American people, and not corporations, in charge of our treasured democracy.” [The Hill, 9/20/2011]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Donna Edwards, John Conyers

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Six US Senators led by Tom Udall (D-NM) introduce a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the right to regulate the federal campaign finance system. The amendment is directed towards overturning the Citizens United decision that allows almost unregulated spending by corporations, unions, and special interests in political campaigns (see January 21, 2010). Udall is joined in sponsoring the amendment by Michael Bennett (D-CO), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). In a press release from his office, Udall is quoted as saying: “As we head into another election year, we are about to see unprecedented amounts of money spent on efforts to influence the outcome of our elections. With the Supreme Court striking down the sensible regulations Congress has passed, the only way to address the root cause of this problem is to give Congress clear authority to regulate the campaign finance system.” In the same release, Bennett adds: “The Supreme Court’s reversal of its own direction in the Citizens United decision and other recent cases has had a major effect on our election system. State legislatures and Congress now may not be allowed to approve even small regulations to our campaign finance system. This proposal would bring some badly needed stability to an area of law that has been thrown off course by the new direction the Court has taken.” Harkin is quoted as saying: “By limiting the influence of big money in politics, elections can be more about the voters and their voices, not big money donors and their deep pockets. We need to have a campaign finance structure that limits the influence of the special interests and restores confidence in our democracy. This amendment goes to the heart of that effort.” And Merkley is quoted as saying: “It was President Lincoln who described the genius of American democracy as ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ We office holders work for the people. They elect us. They are in charge. Citizens United puts in motion the opposite: it moves us towards government by and for the powerful. As such, it is a dagger poised at the heart of American democracy. If we are going to preserve a government responsive to its citizens, we need commonsense reforms that give the American people a full voice. This constitutional amendment is essential for the people to be heard.” The amendment would:
bullet authorize Congress to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns and allow states to regulate such spending at their level;
bullet include the authority to regulate and limit independent expenditures, such as those from Super PACs, made in support of or opposition to candidates;
bullet not dictate any specific policies or regulations, but instead allow Congress to pass campaign finance reform legislation that withstands constitutional challenges. [US Senate, 11/1/2011]
Passing a constitutional amendment is not an easy task. Two-thirds of Congress must agree to the amendment, or two-thirds of state legislatures must call for the amendment. Once proposed, three-quarters of state legislatures must vote to ratify the amendment. [Think Progress, 11/2/2011] This is not the first proposal to amend the Constitution to limit corporate spending (see September 20, 2011).

Entity Tags: Tom Harkin, Jeff Merkley, Michael Bennet, Charles Schumer, Richard (“Dick”) Durbin, US Supreme Court, Tom Udall, Sheldon Whitehouse

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduces a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment that would ban corporate money in politics and end “corporate personhood.” Deutch calls his proposal the Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy (OCCUPIED) Amendment. The proposal reads, “Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to expressly exclude for-profit corporations from the rights given to natural persons by the Constitution of the United States, prohibit corporate spending in all elections, and affirm the authority of Congress and the states to regulate corporations and to regulate and set limits on all election contributions and expenditures.” The amendment, if adopted, would overturn the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), re-establish the right of Congress and the states to regulate campaign finance laws, and effectively outlaw the ability of for-profit corporations to contribute to campaign spending. Deutch says in a statement that refers to the Occupy protesters demonstrating throughout the nation: “No matter how long protesters camp out across America, big banks will continue to pour money into shadow groups promoting candidates more likely to slash Medicaid for poor children than help families facing foreclosure. No matter how strongly Ohio families fight for basic fairness for workers, the Koch brothers will continue to pour millions into campaigns aimed at protecting the wealthiest 1 percent (see November 8, 2011). No matter how fed up seniors in South Florida are with an agenda that puts oil subsidies ahead of Social Security and Medicare, corporations will continue to fund massive publicity campaigns and malicious attack ads against the public interest. Americans of all stripes agree that for far too long, corporations have occupied Washington and drowned out the voices of the people. I introduced the OCCUPIED Amendment because the days of corporate control of our democracy. It is time to return the nation’s capital and our democracy to the people.” [US House of Representatives, 11/18/2011 pdf file; Think Progress, 11/18/2011] Three weeks ago, a group of Democratic senators introduced a similar amendment (see November 1, 2011). On December 8, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will introduce a version of the OCCUPIED Amendment in the Senate that he calls the Saving American Democracy Amendment. Deutch will say of Sanders’s action: “There comes a time when an issue is so important that the only way to address it is by a constitutional amendment. I am thrilled that Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced the Saving American Democracy Amendment, a companion bill to H.J. Res 90, my legislation in the House. The dominance of corporations in Washington has imperiled the economic security of the American people and left our citizens profoundly disenchanted with our democracy. I look forward to working with Senator Sanders to save American democracy by banning all corporate spending in our elections and cracking down on secret front groups using anonymous corporate cash to undermine the public interest.” [Think Progress, 12/8/2011] Two House Democrats introduced similar legislation in September 2011 (see September 20, 2011).

Entity Tags: 2011 Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy (OCCUPIED) Amendment, Bernie Sanders, Theodore E. (“Ted”) Deutch, 2011 Saving American Democracy Amendment

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously votes into effect a resolution declaring that corporations are not people and are not entitled to the same constitutional protections. The vote is spurred in part by the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision (see January 21, 2010) that allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts in independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and the recent claim by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that “corporations are people” (see August 11, 2011). Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa must sign the resolution into effect. It is non-binding, which means that its value is largely symbolic. Nevertheless, the vote, taken in a chamber packed with Occupy LA members and other activists, draws a standing ovation when it is concluded. If Villaraigosa signs the resolution into effect, Los Angeles will be on record as supporting federal legislation that would ensure corporations are not entitled to the same rights as people, particularly in the area of money spent on elections and campaigning. The resolution also proposed language for a constitutional amendment especially when it comes to spending money to influence elections. It also proposed language for a constitutional amendment declaring that money is not a form of speech and affirming the right of the federal government to regulate corporations (see November 1, 2011). Council President Eric Garcetti, who co-sponsored the resolution with Councilman Bill Rosendahl, says: “Every American should have an equal voice in their government. But unless there are big changes, your voice is only as loud as your bank account. And its the big corporations that have the largest bank accounts of all.… The flood of corporate money since Citizens United is literally drowning our democracy. It’s drowning the people’s voice in the government.” During open debate, activist Sylvia Moore tells the assemblage: “Corporations have taken over our society. They are deciding what we eat, how people educate their children, and whether or not we have health care. Corporations are polluting our environment. Some refuse to pay their fair share in taxes. And they are even deciding who gets to vote. They are making our laws when it’s government officials that should be making our laws.” The resolution cites Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s 1938 opinion on the subject, in which Black wrote, “I do not believe the word ‘person’ in the Fourteenth Amendment includes corporations.” [City News Service, 12/6/2011; Think Progress, 12/7/2011]

Entity Tags: Hugo Black, Antonio Villaraigosa, Eric Garcetti, Sylvia Moore, Willard Mitt Romney, Los Angeles City Council, Bill Rosendahl

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Representatives John Yarmuth (D-NY) and Walter Jones (R-NC) file a bill, the Yarmuth-Jones Disclose Act, that would amend the US Constitution to overturn the Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010) and take special-interest money out of American politics. The proposed amendment establishes that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as protected free speech under the First Amendment (see January 30, 1976, April 26, 1978, June 25, 2007, June 26, 2008, January 21, 2010, January 21, 2010, January 22, 2010, March 26, 2010, and December 12, 2011). It also makes Election Day—the first Tuesday in November—a legal holiday, and enables Congress to establish a public financing system that would serve as the sole source of funding for federal elections (see 1974, January 26, 2011 and After, June 27, 2011, and December 1, 2011). Yarmuth explains his proposal in the context of the Citizens United case, saying: “Corporate money equals influence, not free speech. The last thing Congress needs is more corporate candidates who don’t answer to the American people. Until we get big money out of politics, we will never be able to responsibly address the major issues facing American families—and that starts by ensuring our elections and elected officials cannot be bought by the well-off and well-connected.” Jones says in a statement: “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed. The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.” Jones is one of the very few Republicans in Congress who is willing to advocate for campaign finance reform. It is unlikely the bill will pass the Republican-controlled House, and Senate Republicans would likely block it if it made it to that chamber. Amendments to the Constitution require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress before being approved by three-fourths of state legislatures. [US House of Representatives, 12/20/2011; WFPL, 12/20/2011; Think Progress, 12/20/2011] This is not the first attempt to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and regulate campaign financing (see September 20, 2011, November 23, 2010, November 1, 2011, and November 18, 2011).

Entity Tags: Walter Jones, 2012 Yarmuth-Jones Disclose Act, John Yarmuth

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Main Street Alliance logo.Main Street Alliance logo. [Source: Alliance for a Just Society]According to a survey conducted by three business groups, two-thirds of small-business owners believe that the Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010) is bad for small businesses. The survey of 500 small business leaders is released by the American Sustainable Business Council, the Main Street Alliance, and the Small Business Majority. Sixty-six percent of respondents say that the Citizens United decision has hurt business, while only 9 percent view it favorably. Eighty-eight percent of small business owners hold a negative view of the role money plays in politics, and 68 percent view it very negatively. David Levine of the American Sustainable Business Council says: “As we approach the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United case, the verdict is loud and clear: the ruling hurts the small businesses that we need to be strong for economic recovery. Business owners are frustrated because they have to compete with big business bank accounts to be heard, and they are fighting back. More than 1,000 business owners have joined ASBC’s Business for Democracy campaign to fight for a constitutional amendment that overturns this decision” (see November 23, 2010, November 1, 2011, November 18, 2011, and December 20, 2011). Small Business Majority founder and CEO John Arensmeyer says: “America’s entrepreneurs feel corporations have an outsized role and say in politics—to the detriment of the small business community. They’re looking for a level playing field, and as the country’s primary job creators, they should have it.” Melanie Collins, who leads the Maine Small Business Coalition and the Main Street Alliance, says: “Small business owners aren’t stupid. We know who wins when corporate heavy hitters can spend all the money they want, as secretively as they want, to influence our country’s elections—and it’s not us. The Citizens United decision stacked the deck against small businesses. We’ve got to unstack that deck.” [The Main Street Alliance, 1/18/2012 pdf file] Marie Diamond of the liberal news Web site Think Progress agrees, writing: “Small business has been hailed by legislators of both parties as the undisputed engine of economic growth. Fifty-one percent of Americans are employed by small business, and small businesses generate 70 percent of new private sector jobs. But they increasingly find their needs ignored by lawmakers who favor corporate contributors with deeper pockets.” [Think Progress, 1/18/2012]

Entity Tags: Marie Diamond, American Sustainable Business Council, David Levine, Main Street Alliance, Small Business Majority, John Arensmeyer, Melanie Collins

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A 2012 Vermont town meeting comes to order.A 2012 Vermont town meeting comes to order. [Source: Vermont Public Radio]Fifty-three Vermont towns and communities pass resolutions today urging Congress to amend the US Constitution to keep wealthy special interests from having an undue influence in politics. Today is Town Meeting Day across Vermont. Supporters want an amendment to invalidate the 2010 Citizens United decision that allows corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns (see January 21, 2010). State Senator Virginia Lyons says while the process of amending the Constitution “is a long one… if we don’t do this we stand to lose a great deal more.” New York City (see January 4, 2012), Los Angeles (see December 6, 2011), Portland, Maine (see January 18, 2012), Boulder, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin, Corvallis, Oregon, and other towns and cities have adopted similar resolutions. [NECN News, 3/7/2012; Think Progress, 3/7/2012] Several efforts have been made to introduce such an amendment (see September 20, 2011, November 23, 2010, November 1, 2011, November 18, 2011, and December 20, 2011).

Entity Tags: Virginia Lyons

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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