Citizens United, two years old, gives rise to a citizens movement

Money is not speech, a Portlander demonstrates Jan. 20. Two years prior, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporate political spending is protected by the First Amendment. (photo by Jessika Brandt )

Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court took the lid off, corporate money in politics is surging, but so is a citizens movement to counteract it.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court struck down limits on independent corporate (and union) political spending — in a case called Citizens United vs. FEC. The decision provoked an immediate reaction, with polls showing two weeks later that 80 percent of Americans opposed the ruling. Though Citizens United also removed restrictions on independent political spending by unions, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka condemned the decision for further tilting the playing field in favor of corporations.

But since Occupy Wall Street appeared in late 2011, a counter-movement has gained traction, declaring that money is not speech, and corporations are not people.

On Jan. 18 the national public interest group Common Cause launched Amend 2012, an online campaign calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. A two-minute video from former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich makes their case:

And on the eve of the decision’s second anniversary, a group called Move to Amend — formed to overturn Citizens United — held rallies Jan. 20 at federal courthouses in 130 cities, including Portland.

David Delk

Citizens United is one more step for corporations to be able to dominate elections,” says David Delk, an Executive Board member of AFSCME Local 3135 in Portland. Delk works for a public housing agency, enforcing requirements that contractors doing work for the agency pay their workers the prevailing wage. But in his free time for the past 15 years, he’s led a local chapter of the grassroots group Alliance for Democracy, whose purpose is to end corporate dominance of politics and the economy. It’s a big task, Delk admits, and it starts with education.

Most people — real people — don’t think of corporations as persons. But the idea dates back to 1886, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Santa Clara vs. Southern Pacific Railroad that the word “person” in the 14th Amendment could refer to corporations.

Now, a growing number of municipalities are calling for a constitutional amendment to eliminate “corporate personhood” by clarifying that Constitutional rights are for people, not for corporations.

When the question goes before voters, it appears to be a no-brainer: Measures calling for a constitutional amendment to clarify that corporations don’t have the same rights as citizens passed last year by 75 percent in Missoula, Montana; 74 percent in Boulder, Colorado; 84 percent in Madison, Wisconsin; and 78 percent in Dane County, Wisconsin.

City councils have followed suit. Duluth, Minnesota and Los Angeles, California passed resolutions in December. The New York City Council passed one Jan. 4.

Portland, Oregon passed its version Jan. 12, sponsored by Mayor Sam Adams. It directs the city’s federal lobbyist to call for a constitutional amendment to reverse the impact of Citizens United. [It passed 3-0; Commisioners Dan Salzman and Nick Fish were absent.]

“Corporations are not people, they are legal entities created by our laws to foster commerce,” declared U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in a Jan. 20 press statement.

Merkley is one of 18 co-sponsors of a resolution from Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) that would amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United. On Jan. 10, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) became the 12th co-sponsor of a companion bill in the House; his fellow Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio is also a co-sponsor.

To amend the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and then ratification by three-fourths of the states.

Janice Thompson — executive director of the Oregon chapter of Common Cause — sees a Constitutional amendment as one of three approaches to address Citizens United. The other two are public finance, and public disclosure.

On public disclosure, there’s been some movement. Last October, Center for Political Accountability reported that some of America’s largest publicly traded companies are voluntarily moving to disclose their corporate expenditures on politics. Together with researchers at University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, the group reported that 57 of the largest 100 publicly traded corporations disclose direct corporate political spending on their websites, while 43 disclose some information about indirect spending through trade associations or other tax-exempt groups; and 24 have stated they will not make independent expenditures, even though Citizens United allows them to do so. [The full report is here.]

Some elected leaders — like Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler — would like to make those disclosures mandatory. In October, Wheeler came out in support of a petition calling on the Securities and Exchange Commission to require public companies to disclose to shareholders the use of corporate resources for political activities. More robust reporting would increase accountability of companies to their shareholders, Wheeler said, including the state funds he’s responsible for managing.

Last April, the Obama administration announced it was considering an executive order to require companies with federal contracts to disclose their electoral spending. But the administration backed off when the business lobby opposed it.

Delk, at least, is undaunted. “I try not to involve myself in things that are impossible,” he told the Labor Press.

Citizens United is becoming tipping point,” adds Thompson. “Americans are really taking a look at amending the U.S. Constitution.”

Across from Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, about 150 gathered on a rainy Friday Jan. 20 to protest corporate money in politics.

2 Comments on Citizens United, two years old, gives rise to a citizens movement

  1. The Alliance for Democracy supports OR Treasurer Ted Wheeler in his attempt for full disclosure of corporate funds used in political campaigns. However, he implies in his letter to the SEC that corporations have a right to spend such money as a form of constitutionally protected free speech.

    He is wrong. Corporations do not have a constitutional right to free speech. That free speech right is a right of “natural” persons, a right which have been bestowed by corporatist Supreme Court decisions onto corporations. We have constitutional rights because we are human; corporations have been given rights by the courts. I hope that Mr. Wheeler learns this important difference.

    Our elected officials should never agree or promote the idea that corporations have rights even or perhaps especially when they are promoting other noble public causes.

  2. The ideas that corporations are persons and their contributions are a form of free speech are two of the most damaging misconceptions to our political system and to democracy that our coutry has had to suffer. These have been foisted on us by a politicized Supreme Court. The aristocracy of the Supreme Court also needs to be changed by initiating term limits to eliminate the feudal lordships. Perhaps that would put some reasonabilty and rationality into Supreme Court decisions, and make them pay closer attention to the Constitution.

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