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John Nichols: 16 states call to overturn 'Citizens United'

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Dump Citizens United! art

In October 2012 over 1,000 people laid down on a San Francisco beach to spell out their cause: “DUMP CITIZENS UNITED!” 

The most undercovered political movement in the United States — and there are a lot of undercovered political movements in the United States — is the broad-based national campaign to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that ushered in a new era of big-money politics.

On the eve of the nation’s Fourth of July celebrations, Oregon became the 16th state to formally call for an amendment to the Constitution to overturn Citizens United. With bipartisan support, the state House and Senate requested that Congress take necessary steps to re-establish the basic American premise that “money is property and not speech, and the Congress of the United States, state legislatures and local legislative bodies should have the authority to regulate political contributions and expenditures.”

Oregon is the fifth state to make the call for corporate accountability in three months, making 2013 a banner year for a movement that began with little attention and little in the way of institutional support after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that corporations could spend as freely as they like to buy favorable election results.

Support for an amendment now stretches from coast to coast, with backing (in the form of legislative resolutions or statewide referendum results) from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia. The District of Columbia is also supportive of the move to amend, as are roughly 500 municipalities, from Liberty, Maine, to Los Angeles, Calif., where 77 percent of voters backed a May referendum instructing elected representatives to seek an amendment establishing that “there should be limits on political campaign spending and that corporations should not have the constitutional rights of human beings.”

“Why does it matter how many states call for an amendment? Ultimately, an amendment will have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. That’s 38. Four more and we’re halfway there,” says Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which is working with a burgeoning Corporate Reform Coalition of more than 70 groups nationwide. “But before that, an amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the U.S. Congress. And one of the most effective ways to show a state’s representatives and senators in Washington, D.C., that there is popular demand for an amendment is to pass a resolution back home.”

The successful work by national groups such as Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People, and Move to Amend, in conjunction with grass-roots coalitions that are now active from northern Alaska to the tip of the Florida Keys, is far more dramatic than most of the initiatives you’ll see from the Democratic or Republican parties — which don’t do much but fundraise — and various and sundry groupings on the right and left. In Wisconsin, state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, has proposed a resolution that calls for amending the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Citizens United ruling and to establish that a corporation is not a person and money is not speech — using language similar to an amendment introduced this spring by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.

Yet, for the most part, news of reform victories — and the ever-expanding campaign — is afforded scant attention even from supposedly sympathetic media.

As such, the fantasy that says reform is impossible persists.

Just imagine if the movement to amend big money out of politics got as much attention, say, as the wrangling over IRS “targeting” — a classic money-in-politics controversy.

Just imagine if all Americans knew that calls for an amendment are coming not just from traditional progressive reformers but from Republican legislators and honest conservatives at the state and national levels.

Free Speech for People highlights the dozens of Republican legislators who have backed calls for an amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement … calling for the U.S. Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Jr., who maintains one of the most conservative voting records in the House, has signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposed amendments. Why? “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” says the congressman. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”

Jones is noting something that too many D.C. insiders, be they members of Congress or pundits commenting on Congress, fail to recognize: Millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. They are organizing for, marching for, writing letters for, sending emails for, testifying for and voting for the fundamental reform that is an essential building block in any movement to restore faith in the political process and renew American democracy: a constitutional amendment declaring, as the Oregon legislature just did, that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”

John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times, and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of "Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America" (Nation Books). Author Thomas Frank says, “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’ and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.” @NicholsUprising


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