One of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long while is a simple one that would have the support of most Americans, but politicians are probably too cowardly or greedy to do it.
The action would involve passing an amendment to the U.S.Constitution consisting of two short, straightforward sentences. Its creator calls the amendment — without too much exaggeration — “eight words that could save our country.”
Here’s the amendment in its entirety: “Corporations are not people. Money is not speech.”
The proposed amendment’s origin, of course, springs from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the recent Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission case. In its January decision, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn a lower court’s ruling and removed existing restraints on corporations, allowing them to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns.
The case stemmed from a 2008 dispute about whether the nonprofit Citizens United could air a film critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton via a video-on-demand service, and whether the group could advertise the film in broadcast ads featuring Clinton’s photograph. Such an action violates the McCain-Feingold Act, the 2002 law that prohibited corporations from making a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary.
Instead of ruling narrowly on the issue, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority found that prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations was unconstitutional.
The ruling’s supporters tried to lessen criticism from moderates and liberals by noting that it also freed labor unions to make unlimited spending. As anyone knows, however, unions have a fraction of the cash that the nation’s major corporations have.
Citizens United wasn’t satisfied with its victory and already is pushing for more changes to election laws. According to the Associated Press, the group is arguing it “should not be subject to campaign-finance disclosure requirements because it is actually a ‘press entity’ that produces and distributes documentary films.”
In other words, Citizens United wants to conceal the identities of its contributors.
It’s odd that people who feel so passionately about a cause or candidate that they’re willing to pump millions of dollars into a campaign don’t want their names connected to it. The most likely reason is they don’t want to be connected to an effort that might be considered odious by many people, just like many contributors behind California’s anti-gay Proposition 8 tried to hide their involvement.
Voters across the political spectrum — left, center and right — were angered by the ruling, perhaps fueled by resentment from the billion-dollar taxpayer bailouts given to Wall Street firms, a by-product of growing corporate clout. A Quinnipiac poll found 79 percent of the public opposed the ruling; a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 81 percent disagreed.
President Obama blasted the ruling in his State of the Union Address in January, and some members of Congress have introduced bills that seek to restore some spending restrictions. The problem with the bills is that the Supreme Court could invalidate them, just as it did with McCain-Feingold.
But it would be much more difficult for the Supreme Court to undermine a constitutional amendment. And few issues are as important as campaign spending.
As David Morris, co-founder of the Minnesota-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, wrote: “Money matters. The candidate who spends the most money wins over 90 percent of the time. This is true even for open seats. The top spender in House open seat contests won 84 percent of the time. The Senate candidate who spent the most in an open seat race did even better, winning 88 percent of the time.”
Morris, who proposed the eight-word amendment, believes it’s essential to strip corporations of their artificial personhood.
He noted that the Supreme Court has never decided specifically that a corporation is a person. Instead, in 1886, a court clerk merely wrote a note on a case that stated, “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”
Morris wrote, “Corporate lawyers must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the headnote appeared and was taken as precedent because they knew it would be impossible to make a case for corporate personhood.
“The Constitution doesn’t mention corporations,” he added.
“The American Revolution was, in part, catalyzed by hatred of corporations. As Tea Partiers should know by now, the Boston Tea Party was not a protest against government or taxes. It was a protest against a huge private corporation that had been exempted from taxes in order to gain a competitive advantage against domestic suppliers.”
Corporations and the wealthy already have too much influence over government. Don’t believe me? Think that’s just hyperbole? Consider the October 2005 report prepared by Citigroup analysts for its wealthy investors.
The report concluded the United States was no longer a democracy but a plutonomy — a variation on the word “plutocracy,” meaning a society in which the wealthy class rules.
“The world is dividing into two blocs — where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest,” the report stated. “(T)he top 1% of households in the U.S. (about 1 million households) accounted for about 20% of overall U.S. income in 2000, slightly smaller than the share of income of the bottom 60% of households put together. That’s about 1 million households compared with 60 million households, both with similar slices of the income pie!” The excitable financial analysts then advised their wealthy patrons how to capitalize upon their advantage even further, while cautioning against a possible social backlash.
Fighting the excessive influence of corporations and diminishing the role that money plays in our political system would level the playing field and benefit the Average Joe and Josephine.
That’s a cause that everyone from wild-eyed Lefties to angry Tea Partiers should rally around.
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