Burlington residents submitted petitions last week seeking to schedule a November advisory referendum calling for enactment of a constitutional amendment to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which gave corporations the power to spend unlimited amounts to buy elections.
Burlington’s not the first Wisconsin community to take up the issue, at the urging of groups such as United Wisconsin and Move to Amend. Forty-one Wisconsin towns, villages, cities and counties have formally told Congress that the Constitution must be amended to make it clear that corporations are not people, money is not speech, and citizens and their elected representatives have a right to organize elections that are defined by votes rather than dollars.
More than 500 other communities across the U.S. have also done so.
And 16 states have asked Congress to act.
But will anyone in Washington take them seriously?
Once dismissed even by many reformers as an appropriate yet impossible initiative, the movement for a “Money Out/Voters In” amendment to the Constitution has grown so strong — and been proven to be so necessary — that it has now achieved what most organizers of amendment movements only imagine.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to endorse an amendment that would undo the damage done to democracy by a series of high court decisions — and would restore reasonable limits on financial contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections.
Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, a former Vermont prosecutor and the senior member of the Senate, framed the vote with a declaration that “I have served in the Senate for nearly 40 years and as chairman of the Judiciary Committee for nearly 10. I have always believed that amending our Constitution must be subject to the highest measure of scrutiny. It is something that should only be done as a last resort. But when the voices of hardworking Americans continue to be drowned out by the monied few, and when legislative efforts to right this wrong are repeatedly filibustered by Republicans, more serious action must be taken.”
Leahy’s position was echoed by committee Democrats, who joined him in backing an amendment that declares:
SECTION 1: To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
SECTION 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
SECTION 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
We think most Wisconsinites would like to see an even stronger amendment than that. And we hope that, as the amendment movement grows in strength, and as the congressional debate evolves, a final amendment will feature more specific language regarding all the issues that arise when the courts and Congress extend special rights to corporations.
But no one should doubt the significance of the fact that, in four short years, a grass-roots movement has changed the calculus of the money-in-politics debate. With little money and almost no major media coverage, the movement started by groups such as Move to Amend and Free Speech for People, and advanced by People for the American Way, Common Cause and Public Citizen, has staked out bold positions and made overly cautious Democratic officials and even a few Republicans move toward them.
With Judiciary Committee backing and 45 co-sponsors, including Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the amendment proposal as it currently stands has traction in the Senate. But that does not mean that the amendment will move easily through Congress. Senate Republican leaders, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have grown increasingly militant in their opposition to efforts to reduce the overwhelming political influence of corporations and billionaire donors such as the Koch brothers. Because 67 votes are required to secure Senate approval of an amendment, majority support — even if it is bipartisan — will not be sufficient. So the organizing work that got the proposal this far will have to continue.
Voters in communities such as Burlington need to add their voices to the nationwide outcry against the corrupt politics of the moment. The people are starting to be heard and, as Public Citizen President Rob Weissman says, “The day is not long away when Americans will celebrate the 28th Amendment and the return of control over our elections and our country to We the People.”
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