A joint resolution that would set overall limits on campaign spending and overturn Citizens United is currently making its way through the Senate. Though they have a slim chance of approval, the proposed constitutional amendments would greatly reduce the corporate stranglehold on politics and put power back into the hands of ordinary voters.
To understand the significance of the “Democracy For All” and the “People’s Rights” amendments, here’s a judicial primer:
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions could use money from their general treasury funds to donate to political candidates. This is the case that decided corporate spending is equivalent to free speech, therefore restricting corporate spending on candidates is illegal under the First Amendment. Essentially, this means that corporations have the exact same rights as individuals – just with a whole lot more money at their disposal.
In McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the Supreme Court struck down federal limits on overall campaign contributions that individual donors could make to candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs). Donors are still restricted to spending a maximum of $2,600 per candidate per election cycle, but they are no longer restricted to spending on just one candidate.
On Tuesday, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), called Citizens United “one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court.”
The impact of the Citizens United decision on the political system cannot be overstated. As Michael Mann, Professor of Meteorology, explained in an interview with Planet Experts, the power to support or oppose honest data is now in the hands of those with the most money – namely, the fossil fuel industry:
“[A] number of very well-heeled private interests – the Koch brothers in particular – have spent tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars poisoning – literally poisoning – our public discourse over climate change by funding professional climate change deniers, creating front groups and funding think tanks that exist to cast doubt on the science of climate change.”
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said as much in 2013:
“The polluters give and spend money to keep polluting. Not truth, not science, not economics, not safety, not policy, and certainly not religion, nor morality ‒ nothing supports climate denial. Nothing except money. But in Congress, in this temple, money rules; so here I stand, in one of the last places on Earth that is still a haven to climate denial.”
Thus, two amendments have been proposed that would overturn both Citizens United and McCutcheon. The Democracy For All Amendment (S.J. Res. 19) would allow Congress and the states to set overall limits on campaign spending, including prohibitions on corporate and union spending that existed prior to Citizens United. The People’s Rights Amendment (S.J. Res. 18) would overturn the doctrine that corporations have the same rights as people. Both senate resolutions are accompanied by matching House resolutions.
The Senate passed the resolution with an initial vote of 79-18. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called the vote a Democratic political stunt (the vote was actually carried by 20 Republicans).
The Democracy For All Amendment would need to win a two-thirds vote to pass the Senate, which analysts say is unlikely.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Robert Weissman (President of Public Citizen) and Annie Leonard (Executive Director of Greenpeace US), say that the amendment’s passage would be pivotal to the green movement.
“How does this relate to preventing climate catastrophe?” they write. “It would put a significant time-out on Dirty Energy companies leveraging their political power to block progress.”
They go on: “Executives from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy have the same right to participate in politics as the rest of us. But their big bucks shouldn’t give them political superpowers.”
With the current Supreme Court rulings, “dark money” is rampant in political spending – funds donated by trade associations and social welfare organizations that, because of poor FEC enforcement, do not need to disclose their donors. Weissman and Leonard use Freedom Partners as an example. The group, later revealed to be funded by the Koch brothers, spent over $225 million in the 2012 elections.
With that kind of capital backing up fossil fuel interests, how can climate change ever become a relevant issue in Washington?
Ordinary citizens need Democracy For All.