Supporters Prepare For “Watershed” Vote On Overturning Citizens United
WASHINGTON — Consumer advocates, election watchdogs and progressive action groups across the country are ratcheting up political pressure as the Senate prepares to vote on a constitutional amendment that would weaken the new, unprecedented power of outside money to influence U.S. elections.
The vote, scheduled for Monday, comes four years after the highly contentious Supreme Court case known as Citizens United. That decision largely did away with political spending limits by anonymous corporate entities, and has since been acknowledged by both supporters and critics as a direct contributor the recent record-busting election spending at state and federal levels.
“Week in, week out, this is one of the absolutely top priorities for our members, and this week they’re super-engaged and making thousands of phone calls,” Mark Crain, a campaigner with digital advocacy group MoveOn, told MintPress News.
“We think it’s very important to make a strong showing around this vote, as it could be a huge stepping stone in moving towards a constitutional amendment. Whatever the outcome next week, this vote will be historic.”
The vote will take place as this year’s midterm battles are already breaking records. According to figures provided by the Federal Election Commission, and noted last week inthis analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, election spending has passed the $50 million mark by the end of August.
This is not only a new record for this point in the election cycle, but it underscores the clear sea of change in how U.S. elections work. During the last midterm elections, just $6.6 million in spending by groups with anonymous donors had been reported to the FEC at this point in the cycle.
The Center for Responsive Politics forecasts that, by election day in early November, that figure could near $1 billion. That’s an unheard-of number for a non-presidential election, and until recently, it was unheard of even for presidential contests.
But at least in Washington, the issue of what to do about the situation remains deeply polarized. Concern over the impact of the Citizens United decision was formally included in the 2012 platform for the Democratic Party, and President Barack Obama has suggested the precedent has made the entire political system function more poorly. Republicans, meanwhile, have reportedly been the most significant beneficiaries of the Supreme Court decision (alongside major trade unions).
Yet, the politics of the issue are far less contentious than the politicians would suggest. Suddenly inundated with political ads often paid for by outside groups, people across the country, and from across the ideological spectrum, are expressing frustration with this new normal.
Innew polling released Wednesday, voters from both parties supported, by large margins, taking legal action to weaken the roll of money in politics. That survey, which was dually carried out by one liberal and one conservative polling agency, found that Republicans supported such action by a margin of two to one. Further, voters of all ideological backgrounds opposed electoral spending by lobbyists and special interests, with Republicans even edging out Democrats 79 to 76 percent.
“Amending the Constitution is always a big undertaking,” Robert Carpenter, a Republican pollster and president of Chesapeake Beach Consulting, which collaborated on the poll, said in a statement released with the findings. “But given the strong support for this amendment from Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, and given that voters are three times more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the amendment, it is time for the Senate to act.”
Critics see a constitutional amendment as the only substantive option for dealing with the effects of the Citizens United decision. After all, there is no appeals process for a Supreme Court decision, and Congress would be barred from making most major legislative tweaks.
So, on Monday, senators will vote on a brief resolution,SJ Res 19, informally referred to as the Democracy for All amendment. The bill, offered by Sen. Mark Udal (D-NM), constitutes the most formal and significant step yet in an amendment movement that began almost immediately after the Supreme Court judges handed down their split decision in 2010. It is not the first such attempt, however: more than a dozen amendment proposals have been offered in Congress during the current session alone.
The Udal resolution is notably modest. In order to “advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process,” it would simply clarify that both Congress and the state governments “may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.”
In addition, the resolution would empower state and federal government officials to “distinguish between natural persons and corporations … including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.”
Currently, the resolution has the stated support of 50 senators — half the body, though two-thirds of members need to back an amendment proposal for it to progress. This week, supporters have been pledging to flood the offices of around a dozen lawmakers who have yet to indicate how they will vote. These include Democrats (Tim Kaine, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Mark Warner) as well as Republicans (Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski).
“This is going to be a watershed vote, and the work is currently going on wholesale at the local, state and national levels,” Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, an advocacy group, told MintPress.
“It’s a very exciting time, though of course there remains a lot of work to be done going forward. But remember, right after the Citizens United decision there was an amendment introduced and it only had four sponsors — now we’re up to 50 in the Senate alone.”
Baker’s group has been particularly active at the local and state levels, advising municipalities and state legislators on passing formal resolutions in favor of an amendment. To date, 16 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 550 towns and cities have gone on record in support of an amendment overturning the Citizens United decision.
In 2012 the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents all 1,400 cities in the country with over 30,000 people, unanimously adopted a resolution calling for an amendment. That action resolved that corporations should not receive the same legal rights as people, and that “money is not speech.”
“The U.S. Senate vote on a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore democracy is a sign that the American people are being heard,” Aquene Freechild, co-director, of the Democracy Is For People Campaign at Public Citizen, which co-sponsored the new poll, told MintPress.
“This vote is just the beginning. Americans want Congress to rein in out-of-control election spending and ensure that the government responds to the will of the people, not the will of the wealthy.”
By any metric, the spate of local-level action constitutes an extraordinary show of support for any issue as inherently contentious as amending the Constitution. Out of more than 11,500 such attempts in the country’s history, only 27 have succeeded — 10 of which involved the Bill of Rights, according to Senate figures.
Yet, one place that has yet to exhibit much energy around Citizens United is the House of Representatives. Acompanion bill to the Udal amendment has been introduced in the House, where it was referred to a congressional committee in mid-July. And while that proposal has attracted nearly 120 co-sponsors, it is widely expected to go nowhere. (Even if both houses of Congress green-lighted the amendment resolution, it would still need the approval of three-quarters of the states.)
Still, many observers say the Senate’s vote on Monday will lead to an uptick in momentum in, and public focus on, the House.
“I think the level of House support will grow, and certainly after the Senate vote we will redouble our efforts in the House,” Baker, whose group co-funded the poll released Wednesday, said.
“It’s important to note that it is only in Washington that this is seen as a partisan issue. While the current situation highlights a clear disconnect between elected officials in Washington and what their constituents want, I have no doubt that this is going to change. After Monday’s vote, we’ll know what side everybody is on.”
Given the strong national antipathy toward the recent influx of money into elections, MoveOn’s Crain said Monday’s vote will also be an important signal to the country that the government is listening to the public’s views. But he warned that moving the House of Representatives on the issue will take additional time.
“Right now it’s something of a Catch-22, as a lot of these members are more responsive to the money coming into their campaign coffers than to the public,” Crain said.
“The Republicans are currently playing a nihilistic game, wanting the public to see the government as dysfunctional. Our goal is to show that we can hold government accountable, that it will listen to us. But that means holding the line on issues like this, so we’re all committed for the long haul.”
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