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Two Years After "Citizens United," Amending the Constitution is Essential

January 21 marks the second anniversary of Citizens United v. F.E.C., where a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court asserted that the Constitution prevents Congress from limiting the amount of money that can be spent influencing our elections. The Center for Media and Democracy is working with a constellation of groups in support of amending the Constitution to reverse the decision and address the distortion of the democratic process.

The 5-4 Citizens United decision struck down bipartisan clean election laws and declared that Congress could not limit so-called "independent" spending by corporations or others. In the two years since that decision, the 1% have been playing an increasingly outsized role in our elections, holding even greater sway than they had before 2010. Deep-pocketed CEOs and corporations have filtered many millions of dollars through Super PACs like American Action Network and secretly-funded non-profit groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, spending made possible by Citizens United and the district court decision v. F.E.C.

Exceptionally Costly, and Exceptionally Unpopular

The first elections after Citizens United were the most expensive in U.S. history, with more spending coming from outside groups than from the candidates themselves. In modern elections, 9 out of 10 races are decided by who raises more campaign cash. Given this reality, it stretches the imagination to believe elected officials won't be indebted to those deep-pocketed donors who help them get the edge over their opponent.

The 2012 elections are expected to once again set new records for spending. And the money that flows into this year's campaigns will come overwhelmingly from the top one percent. Only a tiny sliver of Americans donate to elections, and the bottom ninety-nine-point-five percent who can afford to contribute will have their dollars drowned out by the million-dollar contributions made possible by Citizens United.

The decision is not only unleashing an exceptional amount of spending -- it is also exceedingly unpopular. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday shows 65 percent of voters from both parties who know about the Citizens United decision believe it has had a negative impact on politics. Additionally, a poll released Wednesday from Main Street Alliance, the American Sustainable Business Council, and Small Business Majority shows that 66 percent of small business owners believe Citizens United decision has been bad for small businesses, compared to only 9 percent who think it's good -- a margin of 7 to 1.

Constitutional Amendment May be Only Option

Despite public opposition to Citizens United, reversing it will not be easy. With money deemed to be "speech" and corporations "people," the narrow majority of justices in that decision claimed the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment compelled the Court to strike down bipartisan rules governing election-related spending. As a result, many believe it necessary to push for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and related decisions that have distorted the election process.

Several public interest groups have been calling for amending the Constitution since Citizens United was released, including CMD, Move to Amend, People for the American Way, Free Speech For People, Public Citizen, Common Cause, and others, like the Coffee Party, the NEA, and CWA, as well as a new group called "United Republic." Despite some differences in tactics and proposed amendment language, these and other groups have come together in a "constellation," uniting under the banner of a common set of principles and with a collaborative website, "United for the People" ( The effort to amend the Constitution gained major steam as the Occupy and 99% movements have objected to the distorting role of money in politics and the absurdities of "corporate personhood."

And some legislators have been paying attention.

U.S. Congresspersons Offer Amendments

In November 2011, Congressman Ted Deutsch (D-FL) introduced the "Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in Our Elections and Democracy" (OCCUPIED) constitutional amendment that would prohibit business corporations from spending money on elections. It would also restore the power of Congress and the states to regulate election contributions and spending, which would prevent wealthy CEOs like David and Charles Koch, or North Carolina's Art Pope, from having an undue influence on elections. In December, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced a companion bill in the Senate, along with Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK). (You can sign a petition in support of the amendment here.)

The Center for Media and Democracy endorsed the Deutsch/Sanders proposal as the most powerful amendment to date in Congress (and got a shout-out from Sen. Sanders when he introduced it).

Other amendment proposals have also been introduced.

Weeks after the Citizens United decision was announced in January 2010, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) introduced an amendment, followed in February by a proposal from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), then one from Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH) in April, and another proposal from Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) in July.

On Thursday, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced an amendment to deal with public financing of election, a proposal in line with the suggestion of hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.

In total, ten amendments have been offered in the 112th Congress. Others have been floated but not yet introduced, like the proposed amendment from the "Move to Amend" coalition.

Amendments Differ, But Reflect Need for Change

The introduction of each amendment helps advance this vital issue and reflects the depth of support for reversing Citizens United. While the precise language and impact of each proposal differs, they share a common diagnosis: that the democratic process is being unduly distorted by money and corporate influence.

Non-profit law expert Greg Colvin has suggested an analytical framework to help people assess what the proposed amendments do (or do not do), and compared some of these and other proposed amendments.

There is no doubt that amending the constitution will not be easy, but a growing number of Americans believe it is essential. Citizens of all political stripes know the current systems gives far too much power to a small number of rich individuals and corporations.

Second Anniversary Events

Hundreds of events are being held this week across the U.S. to protest the decision on its second anniversary.

On Friday, one day "occupations" will be held at hundreds of federal courthouses. A large demonstration is planned for the U.S. Supreme Court, where Move to Amend's David Cobb and George Friday will be joined by Code Pink's Medea Benjamin, the Coffee Party's Annabel Park, TV host Thom Hartmann and others in speaking out against Court decisions they believe must be overturned. "Occupy the Courts" is organized by the Move to Amend coalition.

On Saturday, activists across the country will 'apprehend' corporate impostors posing as 'people' asserting constitutional rights, including an effort targeting Bank of America at their New York headquarters. "Occupy the Corporations" is organized by Public Citizen.

For more information about these and other events, visit

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Brendan Fischer

Brendan Fischer is associate counsel at The Campaign Legal Center. Formerly with PR Watch, he graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School. Prior to law school, Brendan served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural community in Northeastern El Salvador. Twitter: @brendan_fischer

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