Tuesday was the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court case that re-wrote the political landscape.
On January 21, 2010, the nation’s highest court handed down its ruling on the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision equating political spending with free speech covered under the Constitution‘s first amendment.
Under this ruling, the federal government is prohibited from interfering with corporations, nonprofit organizations, and unions from spending unlimited sums to support or oppose individual political candidates.
As long as they are not presenting funds to campaigns directly, corporations are free to dump as much as they want into political advertising and “super PACs” (political action committees) not required to disclose their donors’ identities.
But Citizens United was not the first high court decision to hand democracy to corporations.
That distinction lies with the 1886 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company.
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that political campaign spending limits are unconstitutional.
In 2014, the McCutcheon v. FEC case further solidified Citizens United by determining unconstitutional any limits on individual contributions to federal candidate committees and national parties over a two-year period.
As insurmountable as this may seem, it is possible to take back our democracy.
Consider Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination that has shattered fundraising records with just individual donations sans corporate influence, something most prior to his 2016 run for the White House assumed impossible in a post-Citizens United milieu.
Now myriad Democratic candidates for state, local, and federal office are refusing corporate backing.
In fact, corporate cash has become a blight on a candidate’s reputation.
A week before Citizens United’s tenth birthday, the Seattle, Wash. City Council unanimously banned “foreign-influenced” companies from local elections’ political spending.
Barred now are companies with single foreign investor holdings at least 1% ownership, or two or more foreign shareholders holding at least 5% ownership.
President of Free Speech For People, John Bonifaz, declared:
“The Seattle City Council’s passage of this model legislation marks a major victory for our democracy. In Seattle, as in so many places, the corrupting influence of foreign corporate money in politics is not just a threat. It’s here and now. We congratulate Seattle for leading the way in addressing this threat and in protecting the integrity of its elections.”
BREAKING: Seattle just blocked foreign-influenced corporations from spending money in its elections. This landmark campaign finance legislation bans corporations like Amazon and Bank of America from infiltrating the city’s electoral process.
— FreeSpeechForPeople (@FSFP) January 13, 2020
Lorena González, Seattle City Council President, added:
“Thanks to the ordinance passed today, the security of our electoral system is stronger. This legislation confirms Seattle’s ongoing commitment to a democracy by and for the people of this city.”
The Corporate Reform Coalition tweeted:
It is possible to take on powerful corporations and win.
Just look at Seattle.
Last year Amazon spent $1.5 million to remake the City Council, but many of the candidates it backed lost.
Yesterday, the City Council passed a law banning Amazon from dominating Seattle politics.
— Corporate Reform (@CorporateReform) January 14, 2020
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), added:
Seattle has banned corporations with significant foreign investor ownership from spending on politics. Another example of good work being done at the local level on ethics and money in politics.https://t.co/t7BBkZDLbN
— Noah Bookbinder (@NoahBookbinder) January 14, 2020
Seattle is home to Jeff Bezos‘ Amazon.com that suffused $1.5 million into the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s super PAC ahead of the November elections.
In 2018, it (unsuccessfully) lobbied against a corporate tax intended to increase revenue for homeless services and affordable housing.
But as legal director for Free Speech for People, Ron Fein, encouraged:
“Seattle’s law should spark a national movement to protect our democratic self-government. If what Seattleites call ‘the other Washington’ won’t lead, then Seattle will.”
A constitutional amendment is necessary to completely overturn Citizens United.
The non-profit organization Move to Amend has been working year after year to make that happen through a “We the People” amendment.
“We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”
Last year, Senate Democrats introduced their own constitutional amendment.
A future where “corporate personhood” is again a thing of fiction is possible.
If Congress is too slow, Seattle just demonstrated how, like same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and minimum wage increases, local governments can take on the issues most affecting their constituents–and win.
Image credit: medium.com