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Drowning Out the Voters

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Massachusetts S. 772, a State Senate bill offering a constitutional amendment to overturn the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. FEC, has festered in the Massachusetts State Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary for more than a year. Introduced in early 2011, S. 772 has gained the support of several state senators and representatives, City Councils, attorneys and activist groups. It would limit First Amendment free speech rights to individuals and exclude special interest entities such as corporations or unions on the grounds that they are not "people."

Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based activist organization that advocates for the interests of consumers and voters, attributed the bill's stalling to "political wrangling over other issues in the legislature." The group called for Massachusetts residents to contact their state senators and urge them to move the resolution forward. Rep. Cory Atkins (D-Concord) called the resolution "2012's most important issue" earlier this year, saying the Citizens United ruling could result in powerful business interests skewing elections and policy decisions.

Several states and hundreds of localities have already passed or are trying to pass similar resolutions, as have a dozen or so members of Congress. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley recently signed a letter urging Congress to support a reversal of the Citizens United ruling; the letter, co-signed by the attorneys general of Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia, said the decision is drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.

Michael Connolly, an attorney and part-time activist, successfully urged the City Council in his hometown of Cambridge to vote for a resolution to pass S. 772. "As it stands, public confidence in government continues to decline," Connolly wrote in a letter to the Boston-area news website Cambridge Day. "Earlier this month [February], CNN reported that the congressional approval rating hit yet another all time low; it now stands at just 11 percent."

A majority of Americans—between 60 and 80 percent—opposed the Citizens United ruling in several national polls, and many see it as less supported by predecent than most decisions rendered by the Supreme Court over the last century. It is also widely perceived to be one of the most potentially damaging to democracy in light of the resulting tsunami of corporate money that it released into the electoral process through new and/or sketchily defined organizations such as Super PACs and 503(c)s. A constitutional amendment would require the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three quarters of state legislatures. To date, the legislatures of Hawaii, New Mexico and Vermont have passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. Soon they may be joined by populist powerhouse California, whose Assembly just voted 48-22 in favor of a resolution; it now awaits a vote in the state senate.

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A constitutional amendment is a tall order and that is why it is crucial for its advocates to gain a full understanding of the underlying issues and advocate for an amendment that is both powerful and can be widely acceptable to the vast majority of Americans of all political persuasions. Public Citizen’s advocacy of this issue is highly laudable however the issues of corporate personage and money equaling speech are in many ways red herrings and distract us from solving the seminal issues at hand. As far as corporate personage is concerned, determining the legal status and nomenclature utilized is not the seminal issue. What is crucial is what corporations, unions and other organizations and groups can do to distort democracy through the power they gain by aggregation both economically and politically.

That is why the Renew Democracy Amendment proposes that "The right to contribute to political campaigns and political parties is held solely by individual citizens." This strong statement diffuses concern about the status of any organization as it would no longer be able to contribute. For the understandable concern that the public has with regards to the issue of whether money equals speech to facts must be recognized. The first is that any donation to campaigns and candidates is political speech so at its very essence any donation has the form of money equaling speech. . That is why the Renew Democracy Amendment proposes, "Political campaign and political party contributions shall not exceed an amount reasonably affordable by the average American." This allows for small-scale contributions that cannot by themselves influence legislators to act contrary to the will of the majority of their constituents.

If Massachusetts takes up this issue of solving the problems delineated in Citizens United, they should strongly consider the proposals in the RDA as the way to answer their call and more.

Posted by Craig Clevidence on 4.18.12 at 11:11
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