After five years of unlimited corporate campaign contributions, it’s time to get money out of politics. Jan. 21 is the fifth anniversary of the highly controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, in which a split Supreme Court decided that unions and corporate entities can contribute unlimited funds to elections. This decision has damaged our democracy and it’s time for us to act.
Each election cycle since the 2010 Citizens United decision has seen more and more money pouring into the system. Elections have become little more than bidding wars, with the candidate with most money winning over 90 percent of the time. Most of the money comes from big corporate special interests, with the richest few drowning out the voice of the vast majority of people. And with the 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the Supreme Court made a bad situation worse. This ruling struck down aggregate limits on campaign contributions to federal candidates and political committees, making it easier for corporate groups and the super wealthy to contribute large sums directly to candidates and political parties.
The Citizens United case rested on the assumption that allowing for corporate contributions would not increase corruption or the perception of corruption. However, there is a widespread perception of the corrupting influence on political leaders as a result of their need to secure big dollars to get elected. According to a 2012 Brennan Center for Justice poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans believed super PAC spending leads to corruption, and 85 percent believed that, compared with past elections, the money being spent by political groups in elections was more likely to lead to corruption. Thus, it appears that elections are for sale, and that the public sees that campaign contributions are little more than legal bribery.
The extension of constitutional rights to corporations, unions and other similar entities, often known as “corporate personhood,” has opened the door to other insidious problems. For example, corporations avoid environmental protections by claiming that regulatory inspections violate their Fourth Amendment protections from illegal search and seizures. How can clean, safe water be protected if testing effluent is considered a rights violation? In the name of additional profits, corporations use supposed constitutional rights to avoid regulatory pollution controls, while fish die and people get sick.
Corporations have even claimed the First Amendment right to religious freedom, as seen in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case. In this case, a corporation successfully claimed the First Amendment right of religious freedom to avoid complying with a government mandate. That’s right, a corporation — really, an organizational business structure and tax designation — claimed to hold a religious belief. This most treasured right of citizens to believe or not believe in a particular religion was used as a loophole by the corporation. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect living, breathing citizens from government overreach. But through judicial alchemy, the Supreme Court has decided to further empower corporations, perhaps the most powerful man-made organizations, at the expense of the people.
With the disastrous consequences of the Citizens United decision in mind, there is a movement afoot to amend the constitution, to rein in political spending and to end corporate personhood. Nationally, the Move to Amend group is working state by state, town by town, and ultimately person by person to overturn Citizens United by amending the U.S. Constitution. Move to Amend is a national coalition with more than 150 local affiliates and over 370,000 members. Move to Amend supports the We the People Amendment, which clarifies for the Supreme Court and all Americans that money is not speech, and therefore, campaign spending can be regulated; and only human beings — not corporations, unions and the rest — are entitled to constitutional rights.
Thus far, 16 state legislatures have signaled their support in favor of some type of constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. Across the country, almost 600 cities, towns, villages and other organizations have voted in favor of the Move to Amend amendment, often by an overwhelming margin. In Wisconsin’s last election, 12 communities voted in support of an amendment, with every measure garnering at least 70 percent support. To date, 54 Wisconsin communities that have called for the Move to Amend amendment. In total, 2.4 million people (41 percent of Wisconsinites) live in these jurisdictions.
On this, the fifth anniversary of the controversial Citizens United decision, it is time to consider the problems that have arisen since this ill-advised, split court decision. The proposed We the People Amendment, with its two central pillars — (1) money is not speech, and therefore, campaign spending can be regulated; and (2) only human beings (not corporations, unions, and similar entities) are entitled to constitutional rights — will do much to address the problems exacerbated by the Citizens United decision. Visit the Wisconsin Move to Amend website to find out how you can join the effort to reclaim our democracy.
James Hartwick is co-chair of Wisconsin Move to Amend.