The butt-ugly, Super Pac-polluted landscape of the Republican presidential primary battlefield may be the best argument yet for liberals who want a constitutional amendment to overturn “Citizens United.”
That’s the code name for the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that unleashed a tidal wave of special interest money that’s now beginning to inundate America’s election system.
Newt Gingrich’s campaign is being kept alive by “independent” injections of more than $11 million from Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The Super Pac run by Mitt Romney’s buddies seems to be spending more than Romney’s campaign itself these days. And this flood of conservative cash has triggered President Obama’s nervous allies to start sucking in big money to their own Super Pacs.
“This election is showing everybody that… if you didn’t know what Citizens United was a year ago, you know now,” says Jeffrey Clements.
Clements, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general and the author of the anti-Citizens United book, Corporations Are Not People, spoke at the University of Hartford last week on the need to change the constitution.
“If we don’t do it,” he says of the proposed amendment, “this wouldn’t be government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Clements insists that an amendment is possible. Other experts say Congress is so politically screwed up that getting the two-thirds majorities needed in the U.S. House and Senate in favor of a Citizens United amendment is impossible.
There are even some who argue there should be a national constitutional convention, which could happen if it was called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. That’s never happened and no one knows what wild shit might come out of such a convention. Whatever did emerge would still need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
However it might go, this isn’t going to be an easy mess to fix. Connecticut’s congressional delegation is supporting the idea of an amendment, according to activists here. So far, there hasn’t been any serious grass roots campaign to whip up public sentiment on the issue in Connecticut.
And not everybody here wants to overturn the Supreme Court decision. “The people screaming the most are the liberals and, as far as I’m concerned, if they’re unhappy with it, it’s got to be good public policy,” says Christopher Healy, a conservative former state Republican Party chairman. He doesn’t think there should be any limits on someone’s political free-speech rights or their right to make political contributions.
But even Healy’s worried by the way these Super Pacs are operating without having to disclose who’s giving how much to them.
The top GOP leader of the state Senate, John McKinney of Fairfield, is a far more moderate Connecticut Republican, and he isn’t too happy with what’s happened as a result of Citizens United. “It’s troubling when anyone can write a check for millions of dollars to influence a campaign,” he says.
McKinney thinks it would be better for Congress to try for broader reforms of the election system rather than focus on a narrow constitutional amendment, and he doubts the Connecticut General Assembly should get involved.
The now conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in the Citizens United vs. FEC case to allow corporations and unions to give cash for “independent” efforts to support political candidates and causes. Effectively, the justices ruled that corporations are in fact “people,” as far as political rights go.
Since money has been deemed to equal free speech in politics (that was a far older U.S. Supreme Court decision), and since you can’t limit free speech, the Citizens United ruling opened the door to unlimited corporate political spending.
It was a decision overturning more than 100 years worth of prior Supreme Court precedents.
One of the key players in the Citizens United symphony was also in Connecticut last week.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s speech at Wesleyan University drew protesters who, for some reason, were upset with his conservative stands on stuff like Roe v. Wade, the contested 2000 election that put George W. Bush in the White House, and other minor issues, including being the swing vote on Citizens United.
Earlier this month, 51 Vermont towns voted in favor of a non-binding resolution calling on Congress to pass an anti-Citizens United constitutional amendment. If that seemingly unlikely event were to happen, the amendment would need to be ratified by 38 of the 50 states.
Congressional action is being pushed nationally by a coalition led by the liberal activist group Common Cause. Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, says there hasn’t been a lot of publicity on this issue here because every member of this state’s congressional delegation is already in support of an amendment to overrule Citizens United.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and state Sen. Gayle Slossberg, co-chairman of the Connecticut General Assembly’s General Administrations and Elections Committee, both think Citizens United sucks. And they both would like to see state lawmakers here go on record asking Congress to get off its butt and vote for an amendment.
Slossberg says she plans to urge members of the General Assembly to sign a letter urging congressional action. She also believes the immense special interest money that will dominate this presidential election will convince average citizens that a constitutional amendment is the only real answer.
“As more and more money comes in, people will recognize that their votes are being bought,” says Slossberg. She says it’s going to become painfully clear that the Citizens United decision “allows a small group of very wealthy people to overturn elections.”
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