Friday is the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which helped unleash massive corporate spending in the 2010 elections, and more voices have emerged to denounce the Court’s wrongheaded and extreme ruling. The decision’s impact on public policy debates became more apparent today as the House of Representatives prepares to vote to repeal the health care reform law after pro-corporate groups spent handsomely to discredit the law with bogus charges and attack Congressmen which supported reform.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, along with companies like Patagonia, Stonyfield Farms and Honest Tea, have launched Business for Democracy, “a coalition of like-minded businesses to protest a Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on corporate campaign spending in candidate elections.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “members of ‘Business for Democracy’ believe ‘the decision is inconsistent with the basic ideal of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’" and support a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision.
In today’s Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed how the vast corporate spending to influence the midterm elections was “just an experiment” compared to how corporations plan to sway the 2012 election. But despite the push by pro-corporate groups to keep spending by businesses in elections unchecked, the efforts for legislative remedies and the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United persevere:
According to Bill de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate, Citizens United spending – that is, spending that was only made possible by the court’s ruling – accounted for 15 percent of the roughly $4 billion spent on the 2010 midterm elections. Eighty-five million dollars of Citizens United money was spent on U.S. Senate races alone. Worse, 30 percent of all spending by outside groups was funded by anonymous donations, an illegal action prior to the ruling. Forty million of the dollars spent on Senate races came from sources that might never be revealed.
But as striking as these consequences might be, the 2010 election was just an experiment, the first opportunity to test the new law. In future elections, corporations and shadowy organizations will have a clearer understanding of the boundaries they are operating within, a reality that is sure to translate into more undisclosed cash. And the savvier corporate players know that the mere threat of a corporate onslaught of funding for or against a candidate is enough to win legislative favor, in effect blunting prospects for sound regulation, consumer protection and fair tax policies. As former senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), himself a victim of Citizens United spending, said, "It is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something – much worse."
Yet even as we lament this decision, we should recognize the opportunity it presents. Justice Roberts and his allies overreached so brazenly that they have created an opening for genuine reform.
The clearest and boldest counter to the court’s ruling would be a constitutional amendment stating unequivocally that corporations are not people and do not have the right to buy elections. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced such an amendment to counter Citizens United during the last session of Congress and views it as the only sure way to beat back the court. "Justice Brandeis got it right," she noted last February. " ‘We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’ "
Campaigns for constitutional amendments demand a great deal of patience and tenacity. But as Jamie Raskin, a Democratic Maryland state senator and professor of constitutional law at American University, notes, "American citizens have repeatedly amended the Constitution to defend democracy when the Supreme Court acts in collusion with democracy’s enemies." Not only is a push for an amendment a worthy act, it also provides a unique opportunity to educate the broader public, raise the profile of this important issue and force elected officials to go on record as to where they stand. The campaign could create enormous pressure on state legislatures and Congress, prompting changes to campaign finance even before an amendment is ratified.
Success will require a coalition that transcends party. In this case, there is promising news. An August 2010 Survey USA poll found that 77 percent of all voters – including 70 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents – view corporate spending in elections as akin to bribery. Broad majorities favor limiting corporate control over our political lives. A coordinated effort, executed right, could unite progressives, good-government reformers and conservative libertarians in a fight to restore democracy.