One town at a time, citizens are uniting against Citizens United.
Voters at Westport’s annual Town Meeting earlier this month passed Article 49 (see below), authorizing the town to petition Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to affirm that the rights “protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.”
In other words, the Supreme Court decision of 2010 on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission striking down part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — and affirming that corporations and unions are people — would be unconstitutional.
The central issue for both the reform act and Citizens United is political speech and how it’s financed and disseminated.
And the point that has moved Westport, more than 50 other Massachusetts communities and several states, is that corporations and unions now have a way to spend unlimited funds promoting a political agenda and supporting political candidates.
The majority ruling on Citizens United points out that we, the (real) people, have the liberty of ignoring any speech we choose, and by extension, of contributing to any Super PAC that represents our beliefs.
Very true. In principle, there rests on one side of the great balance of political discourse the massive weight of corporate- and union-funded political speech — from left, right and in between — and on the other side, the opportunity to aggregate funds around a grass-roots message, as comedian/political parodist Stephen Colbert did this winter with his super PAC, Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
The reality beyond the theoretical parity, however, is that the super PACs operate on a dimension far beyond that which is accessible to a “natural person.” Free political speech for the individual partisan clearly lacks the impact of, say, Restore Our Future, which supports Mitt Romney, or Priorities USA, which supports Barack Obama.
Suppose you are a Republican living in Massachusetts who thinks Romney might be able to win here. Would you donate to Restore Our Future? Would you do it if you were a Republican who happens to support the Cape Wind 130-turbine project off our coast, even though billionaire oil magnate and Cape Wind opponent William I. Koch has put $2 million into the super PAC? How can you assure that the one drop of your voice will be heard in that ocean of money?
There is a firmly entrenched school of thought that the Citizens United ruling benefits one party over another.
We don’t buy it. Romney’s corporate alma mater, Bain Capital, is the biggest contributor to Restore Our Future, and has previously shown no compunction about giving to candidates and PACs of either major party.
Regardless of theoretical parity, law plays out in practice. For the Supreme Court to ignore the impact of “scale” upon the law is akin to plugging your TV into a 220-volt service and expecting everything to just keep working. But it overwhelms the system, and in the case of political speech, the system is individual citizens, not the artificial system of corporate “citizens” with corporate goals and an artificially constructed and maintained right of free political speech.
Constitutional amendment? At least it would bring corporate political speech back into the dimension that real people operate in. But something has to be done about Citizens United, because government of, by and for the people needs a voice, and the megaphone of the megamillions is drowning it out.