Wednesday, September 24, 2014
WHY A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT TO END CITIZENS UNITED IS INEVITABLE
It is amazing how hard some people will work to convince others that doing what is absolutely necessary is impossible. Imagine if most people chose to believe that it is too late to do anything about climate change. Even if they were right, doing nothing due to widespread acceptance of the idea would amount to humanity turning its back on its children, dooming them to live through the collapse of human civilization. As another example, the biggest obstacle to global peace is arguably the widespread acceptance of the self-fulfilling prophecy that war is inevitable. What if it became commonly understood that war is always a choice and they only benefit the corporations of the military-industrial complex that essentially dictates foreign policy to decision-makers in Washington? It is possible that war would become unthinkable, if we are willing to make that happen.
Global climate change and global peace, like nearly every issue that Congress and the White House have failed to address, are problems for all but the few who pay for the elections of our representatives in Washington. Congress and the White House routinely put the immediate interests of corporations over those of the rest of us. The short-sighted approach of the Wall Street criminals who dominate the government is setting the US and global economies up for a fall that will make 2008 look like a mild downturn. The economic devastation would leave us woefully unprepared to deal with the human crisis that would result. Well-respected experts like Helen Brown are warning us to prepare for a state of permanent martial law in the wake of the coming economic collapse.
The problem then is that until we change the US system of campaign finance, there is little hope for human civilization. There is a large and growing movement to do so through the only means that a corrupt Supreme Court has left us, a constitutional amendment. You would think that the recent 54-42 vote in the Senate would have caused naysayers some pause, but that does not seem to be the case. A recent article in Alternet made the claim that this meant the movement “collapsed with a predictable thud,” overlooking the fact that the vote itself was a historic milestone on the path to the inevitable enactment of an amendment that will be the first giant step toward establishing democracy in the US since the constitution itself.
What casual observers of the amendment movement consistently fail to recognize is that there is a specific path to passage that should be obvious to anyone who thinks through the problem of getting a corrupt Congress to pass an amendment that will undercut the very system that got most of its members into office. Any solution will clearly need to involve making support for an amendment a crucial campaign issue in Congressional elections. If voters can be made to use this issue as a litmus test for their support, we can and will elect a Congress that will pass an amendment. Such a Congress will have proven that it is willing to put the interests of its constituents over those of the corporate patrons of the current occupants of Congress. Then, they can get on to dealing with other aspects of corruption that critics of the amendment complain it would not address.
Movement leaders can take much of the blame for the failure of recognition of this clear path to victory. The idea has been floating around since before Citizens United was decided, as the Roberts Court’s call for briefs that would expand the original question to gut campaign finance reform made it obvious which way it was going to come down. After the decision, some of us immediately got to work promoting not just wider awareness of the problem, but recognition of the solution. Unfortunately, early supporters gave up on the strategy after the 2010 election failed to yield results. This was surprising, given that the lack of success in electing candidates pledged to support an amendment was predictable. Not only was the idea new, but organizers failed to achieve buy-in from many groups working on the issue. Move to Amend, which had the most boots on the ground early in the battle, rejected the idea outright and refused to work with any group that did not support the amendment they wrote or their strategy to see it passed.
In 2010, Public Citizen issued a call for pledges to support an amendment that would overrule Citizens United. I was one of dozens of candidates for the House and Senate who answered the call. We will never know how many more candidates might have been willing to take the pledge had it received wider publicity through other groups working on the issue and the “alternative” media that treated it as just one issue among many rather than the central problem halting progress on addressing the rest. People for the American Way was Public Citizens’ only partner. Its role was confined to mentioning the campaign on its website and listing candidates who had made a pledge. Despite an effort to revive interest in the idea in 2012 and the ease with which pledges were obtained, another four years passed before the idea finally began to catch on.
In 2012, both Public Citizen and People for the American Way declined to continue what came to be most widely known as the Pledge to Amend campaign, despite the obvious fact that it was a strategy that could only succeed over several election cycles. The same was true for other groups that were approached. Most of them did not seem to appreciate the significance of the idea. Although Pledge to Amend is the name of the same strategy recently adopted by Move to Amend, its steering committee explicitly rejected the idea in 2012 as premature whenever the question came up. Move to Amend is now calling for people to solicit pledges of support for an amendment that would reform campaign finance and abolish corporate constitutional rights (corporate personhood), but there is little evidence that their local affiliates around the country have responded. As a result, it appears that another election cycle is likely to be wasted.
The earliest serious effort to organize a movement around the idea of making support for an amendment a campaign issue seems to have started in Oregon in 2014. In 2013, various groups around the state came together in a successful effort to get an amendment resolution passed in the state legislature. By 2014, they were looking for another project. At that time, the national steering committee of Move to Amend had failed to provide strong leadership in giving local affiliates around the country a new objective once those who had worked passed amendments in their communities had succeeded. They suggested working on getting pledges from state legislators, seemingly ignoring the fact that the amendment had to pass Congress first. The Oregon Democracy Coalition decided to pursue what they call the Ask the Candidate strategy, first suggested by Public Citizen in 2010.
The effort is off to a slow start, but is likely to serve as a model for groups around the US by the time of the 2016 election. It is based on the idea of forming local groups in every community and empowering them to raise awareness of the issue of corruption and the way to address it in ways of their own choosing. The coalition has quickly grown from its original six members (considering all of the Move to Amend locals in the state as one group) to 29. It is reaching out to public interest organizations in the environmental, peace, economic justice, labor and other movements that have largely been working in isolation. All of these groups are realizing that their efforts will be fruitless until we have a government that puts our interests over the corporate patrons of our so-called representatives. While there have been dozens of other strategies proposed that merit support, none have the momentum of the movement to amend the constitution.
As the alternative media and activists nationwide increasingly become aware of the central role of reforming campaign finance in moving America forward, the model used by the Oregon Democracy Coalition is likely to become the nucleus of a truly grassroots movement for an amendment in communities around the country. It might even just become the way that we finally build the fabled “progressive movement” that cynics have written off as impossible to achieve.