Citizens United against Citizens United: A Movement Is Building to Amend the Constitution

By Ott, Riki | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Citizens United against Citizens United: A Movement Is Building to Amend the Constitution


Ott, Riki, Earth Island Journal


IN JANUARY 2010, FIVE US SUPREME Court justices legalized the wholesale purchase of America's elected officials. In its landmark decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the court's majority ruled that corporations, as persons, have a First Amendment fight to spend unlimited amounts of money, as speech, on campaign advertisements as long as those communications are not formally coordinated with any candidate. In Chief Justice Roberts's court, at least, political expenditures by corporations "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

Here in the real world, when someone--or some "thing," in the case of a corporation--has piles of money, that person or thing can purchase more "speech." The unequal distribution of the power to speak can then lead to an out-of-balance political system in which a few actors wield disproportionate influence, a situation that undermines the ideal of one-person one-vote.

Recognizing this, 22 states had laws on the books that put limits on political donations. Sixty years of precedent in federal law also restricted corporate campaign expenditures. Roberts's court found such restrictions unconstitutional and overturned those commonsense protections. In a single ruling, political corruption was legalized.

Then the courts decriminalized the laundering of political money. In March 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia applied Citizens United in Speech.Now.org v. FEC and ruled that an organization formed to accept contributions and make "independent" expenditures must register as a Political Action Committee, or PAC. However, unlike traditional PACs, the new "independent-expenditures" only PACs could accept unlimited contributions from individuals as well as corporations and unions. Even more worrisome, the new breed of PACs--or "Super PACs," as they've come to be known--do not have to disclose the names of their donors. A political attack ad can now appear on television with no one knowing who paid for it.

Since those rulings, Super PACs and their affiliated nonprofit organizations have unleashed a flood of dollars into the political ecosystem. In the 2012 election season, spending through July by these mutant PACs was $181 million. If the early trends in Super PAC expenditures for the 2012 campaign continue, the presidency--as well as many other "publicly elected" representatives will be bought by a handful of oligarchs and corporations whose identity is shielded from public scrutiny. As Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine expert in election law, puts it: "Super PACs are for the 1 percent."

Despite the impression given by pundits on cable television and talk radio, politics is not a game. It's how we collectively decide our national priorities, and it affects real people in real ways. When an elected body is considering rules about, say, how and whether mines can discharge wastewater into local streams, the outcome doesn't just affect which political party wins and which loses. It also affects people's lives. If a mining corporation has a bigger say in the decision than the mine's neighbors, it violates the principle of fairness that underlies a deliberative democracy.

That scenario isn't a hypothetical. A century ago, Montana passed its Corrupt Practices Act to limit financial contributions to political candidates, a reaction to the corrosive effects of the state's mining barons on its electoral system. In June, the Supreme Court--voting along the same lines as the original Citizens United decision--struck down the Montana law.

The courts' attacks on campaign finance regulations have become a catalyst for Americans to engage in a national dialogue about who rules--corporations or persons. The prospect of so-called "dark money" overwhelming our democratic process has forced citizens to confront the degree to which corporations control our politics and, by extension, our government and us. …

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