Reversing 'Citizens United'

It will be a year this week since Chief Justice John Roberts and his
conservative activist colleagues on the Supreme Court joined together in
a dramatic assault on American democracy. Their decision in the Citizens United
case overturned more than a century's worth of precedent by awarding
corporations the rights of citizens with regard to electioneering. The court did away with limits
on when corporations can spend on elections, how much they can spend
and how they can spend their money, allowing unlimited contributions
from corporate treasuries to flood the electoral landscape.

As The Nation noted
in the days after the case was decided, "This decision tips the balance
against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible
for the nation's most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just
individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse

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.

There are multiple steps that can be taken, both short-term and long-term, to roll back the corrosive impact not just of Citizens United
but of preceding campaign finance cases and statutes that already had
flooded the electoral landscape with special-interest spending. At the
more modest end of the spectrum is the option of reviving the Disclose
Act or introducing similar legislation that would require corporations
to show how they spend money on elections and provide disincentives to
spending it. This would be a good step, but it is mere triage; if not
accompanied by a broader push for a bolder set of reforms, its success
would do little to curb the corporate takeover of American elections.

One potential policy change that could accompany greater disclosure
would be the introduction of a public financing system, which would
empower small donors. Legislation has already been introduced in
Congress - the Fair Elections Now Act,
which has more than 160 supporters in the House. A similar system has
been adopted in Arizona, and, in 2007, New York City adopted an
intriguing mechanism of public finance in which the city matches small
donations at a 6-1 ratio, boosting grass-roots fundraising.

The result? According to the New York Times,
the changes "drastically curtailed the role of businesses, political
committees and lobbyists in campaigns" and, importantly, "caused a major
drop in donations from those doing business with the city." Such a
system, implemented on the national level, could greatly increase the
influence of average citizens. In the post-Citizens United era,
there are already efforts afoot to weaken such systems. In Arizona, for
example, the Chamber of Commerce is working aggressively to overturn the
state's clean-money legislation. A push for national public financing,
then, must be accompanied by a strong defense of those systems already
in place.

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.

The multitude of reform groups working to build a more just and
democratic political system understand that if this issue is to grip
people's imaginations, it must be about more than process. In a nation
where recovery still feels like recession, the suffocating grip of
corporate money is anything but abstract. Mobilizing the American people
to make reform a priority will demand making the clearest possible link
between the rise of corporate power and the challenges of everyday

That's not a tough pitch.

In just the past two years, corporate money can be blamed for watering
down consumer protections and diluting health-care and financial reform.
In truth, there is almost no conversation we have in American politics
in which corporations don't occupy all the seats at the table. As Sen.
Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged while talking about big banks during
last year's financial reform debate: "They frankly own the place."

Changing that dynamic might well be the central challenge of this generation. Reversing Citizens United
is about more than any one issue or court case - it is, at its base, a
question of whether American democracy itself can beat back a corporate
takeover, whether our most cherished principles of self-government can
ultimately prevail.

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