This is the personal blog of Rick Staggenborg, MD. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Take Back America for the People, an educational 501.c3 nonprofit established by Dr Staggenborg.

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Monday, December 12, 2011



Most discussions of how to pass a constitutional amendment to abolish corporate personhood dismiss what is likely to be the only possible solution. Instead of calling for a constitutional convention as argued by Lawrence Lessig, the Young Turks and others, we should be focusing our efforts on getting an amendment introduced into Congress. While a number of prominent amendment advocates regard this as impossible, the idea of calling for a constitutional convention is far less plausible and much more complicated. With the rapid expansion of corporate power in the politics of the United States, we simply do not have the time to spend focusing exclusively on the unlikely goal of getting a constitutional convention.

The assumption behind the skepticism of those who reject the idea of getting an amendment introduced into Congress is that it won’t pass because Congress as a body is too corrupt. This is clearly true, but recent events belie that argument. There are now some half dozen amendment proposals introduced in Congress. While the initial timid attempts were worse than useless, public and private pressure has led to several that are worth considering as each has elements that could be incorporated  into an even better amendment. As more come out in favor of such an amendment, support for it can become a prominent campaign issue. This will enable the public to easily discern between candidates wishing to be elected to serve corporate interests and those who intend to work for the citizens who actually elect them.

With nearly 80 percent of both self-identified liberals and conservatives opposed to Citizens United, we can make support for such an amendment a litmus test in every subsequent congressional election where we can find candidates willing to take a pledge to amend, as dozens did in 2010. On May 22 at the Green Festival in Seattle, Kucinich publicly pledged to actively work to get cosponsors in Congress. We can hope that it is in part his work behind the scenes that is in part responsible for the flurry of amendments that have been introduced in the last few weeks, but certainly some of the credit goes to those who are posing this question publicly to candidates and incumbents. Others are working directly with members of Congress. Free Speech for People's John Bonifaz and Jeff Clements deserve credit for first encouraging Barbara Lee to introduce a toothless amendment and then getting Congressman McGovern to put a much better version on the floor.

Average Americans can help get an even stronger amendment on the floor by making their members of Congress know that we will support them if they do. One way to do this is by gathering petition signatures and passing resolutions at local and state levels calling on their members of Congress to introduce and champion the amendment. In the Arizona House District of Raul Grajalva, the Executive Director of Abolish Corporate Personhood Now has single-handedly gathered nearly 3,000 signatures for a petition in favor of the introduction of an amendment abolishing corporate personhood. Paul Winger reports that over 95 percent of those he has approached in his door-to-door effort have been eager to sign the petition. As a member of the National Council of Alliance for Democracy, I have proposed a campaign to solicit endorsements to a pledge to amend from 2012 candidates for Congress. The campaign will be very similar to the one carried out by Public Citizen in 2010, though the wording of the pledge will be different. The Public Citizen campaign resulted in dozens of candidates declaring their support for an amendment that would strip corporations of the “right” to pay for the election campaigns of their favored candidates.

Imagine the difficulty a contender for national office would have convincing voters that they will represent their interests if they oppose the one measure that would assure that they cannot win election by soliciting corporate money. Once the amendment is passed, members of Congress would have no choice but to serve the people because they won’t be able to depend on propaganda campaigns financed by the corporate interests who put our current crop of legislators in office. Thus, a strategy designed to get an amendment introduced and passed in Congress is feasible because it should gain wide support of voters across the political spectrum who recognize that this is not a partisan issue, regardless of how the corporate media spins it. This is the essential strategy of the Pledge to Amend campaign.

In contrast, the idea of a constitutional convention is widely opposed by both liberals and conservatives. Both are justly concerned about the results of a convention where a fundamental restructuring of the constitution could conceivably take place.  Coming from fundamentally different perspectives, neither camp would be willing to take the risk that the other side would hold the day in an open convention. The process would also run the risk of being subverted by the same corporate interests that we are trying to challenge. It is hard to imagine that we would do any better selecting representatives for the convention than we do when we select our representatives in Congress. It seems unlikely that in the end there would be many who would want to take that chance. 

The idea of calling for a constitutional convention has one merit, however. It is a way to get students, union members and others who understand the threat to democracy posed by corporate personhood involved in the grassroots educational movement needed to convince our legislators that they have no real choice but to support the amendment if they wish to keep their privileged positions. With tens of thousands of students and union activists on the streets, going door to door and speaking to groups and individuals about the idea of a constitutional convention, the level of public understanding of the need for an amendment could grow exponentially. Members of the Occupy movement have passed resolutions both in General Assemblies and in city councils, most recently in Los Angeles.

There are members of Congress who have shown that they are passionately committed to democracy and to addressing the many critical needs of the nation that their less idealistic colleagues seem willing to ignore or to treat with half-solutions that always seem to benefit their corporate patrons. It is our job to convince them that the only path forward is to challenge their colleagues to choose between the people of the United States and the corporate plutocracy on which both major parties have come to depend for campaign cash.  With the recent spate of amendments, they know now that they will not be alone in challenging the corruption of Congress by corporate money.

Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley are two senators who clearly understand the problem. Sanders recently introduced an amendment in the Senate that is virtually identical to the Deutsch amendment previously introduced in the House. While it explicitly bans most corporate money in politics and authorizes Congress and the states to limit individual contributions to campaigns, it has the fatal flaw of exempting unions and nonprofit corporations. What is to stop a nonprofit like Citizens United from using this exemption to continue lobbying as if nothing had changed? For Merkley's part, he became a co-sponsor of the far worse Udall bill that would merely give Congress the authority to regulate corporate money, a power our corrupt Congress would clearly never use if by some miracle it passed.

Senator Merkley is listening. He has privately withdrawn his support for the Udall amendment and his staff is looking at alternatives such as the recently released Move to Amend version. It can fairly be said that this amendment combines the best of the McGovern and Deutsch amendments, clearly stating that corporations are not people, money is not free speech and Congress, the states and local governments have the authority to regulate corporate activities. We are hoping that Merkley will talk to Sanders and both will talk to the other supporters of the Udall amendment in the Senate and together introduce an amendment containing the elements of the Move to Amend version.

If such a coalition of reformers in the Senate were to convince other senators and House members to work with them, they could get a bipartisan coalition to introduce the amendment. There is already one Republican House member who has cosponsored the McGovern amendment, Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina. Imagine the effect if Ron Paul were to cosponsor a Move to Amend style amendment: Millions of his adoring supporters would immediately grasp the importance of the issue. Working as a group to jointly introduce the amendment would make such a band of renegades less easily targeted by corporate-funded attack ads. More importantly it would demonstrate to voters that this is not a partisan issue but the one problem that needs to be addressed for Americans to move forward together. All it would take to succeed is for these members of Congress to have the political courage to put into motion a process that would cost the careers of those of their colleagues who are unwilling to stand up for the people in challenging their corporate patrons.

The problem of course is that even these stalwarts of democracy might balk at the idea of making themselves targets of corporate-funded groups that would surely pour millions into targeted campaigns to defeat them when they run for re-election. That is where the growing coalition of Move to Amend and others trying to get corporate cash out of politics come in. It is the job of these organizations to work together to educate voters that not only is corporate personhood the problem, but that there is a realistic way to end it through the electoral process. It is my hope that Alliance for Democracy will take the next step toward getting the amendment they favor on the floor of Congress by endorsing and promoting the Pledge to Amend campaign.

If Move to Amend decides to adopt the strategy, the idea of abolition supporters lobbying their members of Congress should gain widespread traction nationally. They are a coalition of groups championing causes ranging from ending war to establishing environmental and health care justice. The common thread is that each recognizes that the only way to advance the people’s agenda is to end corporate control of government by a constitutional amendment that would end all corporate "rights". 

Only human beings have rights. Corporations exist to confer the privilege of limited liability to investors. personal rights for corporations have been granted by activist Supreme Courts that have consistently favored the interests of corporate power over the needs and desires of the American public. The groups in the Move to Amend coalition know that only way to overrule the Supreme Court is by constitutional amendment.

The differences between the coalition of Move to Amend, which wants to abolish corporate “rights” entirely and groups like Public Citizen which are focusing solely on corporate money in elections are in the end irrelevant. It is Congress that will decide the form any amendment takes. If we succeed at forcing the issue, at that point these groups can lobby for whichever type of amendment they favor. By working together these groups and coalitions can raise awareness that this is not just another issue but the only issue on which the people have a fighting chance of being heard.

The Occupy movement graphically demonstrates that we are at a tipping point where our congressional representatives will have to realize that citizens of the United States are going to hold them accountable for their acquiescence to corporate control of our government. Those who fail to heed the warning will suffer the consequences at the polls.  If progressives and conservatives can work together on the common cause of restoring democracy to America, there is a real chance that we can remove the corporate puppets from Congress. An important goal of the abolition movement must be ending the partisan politics that masks the fact that both major parties have become corrupted by corporate money.

The coup de grace for corporate rule would be to co-opt the Tea Party by convincing these angry voters that they should be focusing their wrath on corporate control of Congress and not on the illusory “socialist” government they have been trained to fear.   When the issue of what has gone wrong in government is phrased as “corporate welfare” it is possible to persuade those who are looking for real solutions that they have simply misidentified the problem. A unified Right and Left speaking as one on this issue could launch the new American Revolution and end the threat of fascism in the United States once and for all.

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