The following was written by Sam Fedele, coordinator of the Rochester, NY affiliate of Move to Amend. Sam is responding to a column in WaPo by George Will entitled “Taking a scythe to the Bill of Rights.”
At some level, most Americans have the uneasy sense that our republic is no longer “of, by, and for the people.” Billionaires, industry groups, and their paid agents, riding on a series of Supreme Court decisions, have methodically insinuated themselves into government as organically and quietly as the roots of a thirsty willow into moist soil. We the People have been reduced to workers and consumers without much of a say.
In 1961, Eisenhower signaled an early warning of a “newly vast and powerful defense industry” rooting deeply into a complicit Congress. Ike correctly saw the serious implications of this uncomfortably cozy relationship between the military, the defense industry, and the Congress, and courageously dedicated the entirety of his farewell address to warn the nation. But Ike’s call for a “vigilant and knowledgeable citizenry” did not materialize. We were distracted by the new prosperity, caught up in moving up.
Since Eisenhower’s time this dependency relationship between Congress and the corporate world has become stronger, broader, and inextricably entrenched. Incrementally, and under the radar of most good Americans trying to make a living and raise their families, corporations have invaded and successfully occupied the Capitol, their presence now firmly and famously established on K Street. Enabled by a series of Court decisions, corporations have been at once fueling and riding the wave of escalating campaign costs into firm control of the People’s representatives dependent upon corporate money to stay in office. This dependence on big money is among the few truly bipartisan realities in DC.
The Supreme Court, not the People’s elected representatives, delivered this silent corporate coup by establishing two judicial doctrines: that spending money on elections is constitutionally protected free speech, and that corporations are “people” and therefore entitled to the inalienable constitutional protections meant for natural persons. These doctrines were most recently summoned in the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, which infamously permits corporations and unions to spend linitless amounts of money to ensure favorable legislation, unwarranted subsidies, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, and a labyrinth of tax loopholes.
But finally people are saying enough, and have begun working to amend the US Constitution to remove these problematic doctrines from the framework of government. Ballot initiatives aimed at abolition are regularly passing 3 to 1; towns, cities, and state legislatures across the nation are issuing resolutions petitioning the Congress to act. And a dozen amendment proposals are currently circulating in the halls of Congress. The notion has wide support among the People across the political spectrum and is gaining traction with legislators.
This, of course, is not good news for the moneyed elites currently in control. So they have summoned their henchmen to run interference, using tactics that have worked for hundreds of years: fear and division. George Will’s recent syndicated piece is a perfect example. He picks on the amendment proposal sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. Will has deep experience in the influence trade and makes this choice with intent to evoke our ingrained association between “Massachusetts” and “liberal” since his divide and conquer strategy is to falsely paint the amendment movement as “liberal” (while in reality, support is very strong among the People independent of political affiliation). He further incites conservatives when he disingenuously pronounces that McGovern’s “purpose is to vastly expand government’s power”, exactly the opposite of McGovern’s real intent, which is to return control of government to ordinary citizens.
Will deftly follows his divide and conquer move with an appeal to his old standby, fear. With a straight face he claims that McGovern’s amendment “is explicitly designed to deny constitutional rights to natural persons who, exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of association, come together in corporate entities to speak in concert.” But eliminating constitutional protections for corporate entities would have no impact on the rights of individuals, whether corporate employees, board members, or shareholders.
Will concludes his fear blitz with a rabid riff of falling-sky scenarios: newspapers censored, book publishers squelched, religions regulated, and corporate assets seized. But these Chicken Little apprehensions are unsupported by history. Corporations operated for centuries before the US Constitution was written and did just fine. The framers were wary of corporate power and made no mention of corporations in the Constitution. Corporations are legal creations of the state and are free to operate within the statutory boundaries of their charters. And while they often posses expertise valuable to the legislative decision process, they are in no way empowered by their charters to use their vast wealth to blackmail the decision makers.
Amending the Constitution, as it should be, is a very heavy lift. Success is contingent on massive awareness and unprecedented cooperation across the political spectrum. We will need to overcome the divisive tenor of political discourse set by talk radio and TV talking heads. Conservatives, liberals, and most of us in between must come to re-appreciate each another as fellow citizens and begin to realize that we have much, much more in common than we do with billion-dollar-a-year hedge fund managers. Sure, some people like Fords, some like Chevys, some are Yankee fans, some like the Red Sox, some think individuals should be responsible for their own health care, some think we should pool resources. That’s fine and healthy. But if what you think about a critical issue doesn’t matter to your representative in Washington (or Albany) because he or she must worry about what the funders think first, then we share the same problem as the early revolutionaries – we have no true representation in government. It doesn’t matter where you stand on issues like the economy, war, the environment, or social security if your voice is superseded by the court-enforced rule of big money.
To revive true representative democracy in America we’ll need all hands on deck working together, right, left, and the disengaged masses in between. So please consider making a personal commitment to fully comprehend and spread this message until it becomes part of the fabric of popular political thought. The corruption of our electoral process by economic interests is the root cause of our cross partisan dissatisfaction with Washington. Without a plainly-worded Constitutional amendment, our nation will continue its progression towards plutocracy; Wall Street will tighten control of our legislative bodies, our policies, laws, and regulations.
So please, refuse the bait set out by agents of the moneyed elite. Investigate, think critically, and get personally involved. It’s time for all Americans to come together with a solidarity unseen for decades to demand that our elected officials restore sanity to our electoral process and integrity to our legislative bodies. Divided by fear we will surely fall.
Update, 5/25/2012: Congressman Jim McGovern has written a terrific reply to George Will’s piece. Although the Post has declined so far to publish it, despite repeated requests, it’s just been published at the Huffington Post and we want you to see it. Here it is.
RESCUING ‘WE THE PEOPLE’
by Jim McGovern
Defenders of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and the ascendant Corporate Rights doctrine that underlies it must be getting nervous. Why else would George Will resort to arguing, as he so outrageously does (“A Scythe Against Free Speech, May 6) that the bipartisan People’s Rights Amendment I have introduced in the House is “comparable” to condoning infanticide?
A large majority of Americans believe that corporations exert too much influence on our daily lives and our political process. A Hart Research poll released last year found that nearly four in five (79%) of registered voters support passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Resolutions calling for such an amendment have passed in several states and cities across the country. Eleven state attorneys general have written to Congress demanding action.
We are already witnessing the corrosive effects of Citizens United: an election system awash in a sea of millions of dollars in unregulated money, drowning out the voices of individual citizens. Politicians are increasingly beholden to wealthy special interests. A multi-national oil company that doesn’t like a particular member of Congress can now simply write a big, undisclosed check to “Americans for Apple Pie and Puppies” and watch the negative advertisements work their magic.
But the effects of the Corporate Rights doctrine go far beyond campaign finance. A Vermont law to require that milk products derived from cows treated with bovine growth hormone be labeled to disclose that information was struck down as a violation of the First Amendment. A federal judge has found that tobacco companies have a free speech right that prevents the government from requiring graphic warning labels on cigarettes. A pharmaceutical corporation has claimed that their corporate speech rights protect them from FDA rules prohibiting the marketing of a drug for “off-label” uses.
As Justice Stevens rightly noted in his dissent in Citizens United (and contrary to what Mr. Will would have us believe), the majority ruling was “a radical departure from what has been settled First Amendment Law.” These corporate “rights” are relatively new, appearing in the last few decades. They overturn centuries of established jurisprudence and national consensus. The Supreme Court used to repeatedly affirm that the elected governments of the states and the nation could regulate corporations. Chief Justice John Marshall described the corporate entity as “an artificial being … existing only in contemplation of law.” No less an authority than James Madison viewed corporations as “a necessary evil” subject to “proper limitations and guards.” Thomas Jefferson wished to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” There is nothing “originalist” about the Corporate Rights doctrine, and it is no mere accident that the first three words of the preamble to our Constitution are “We the People.”
Mr. Will conjures up a nightmare scenario under the People’s Rights Amendment under which “[n]ewspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations – and most religious institutions” would be stripped of all constitutional rights. Wrong. Those rights were properly secure before the modern fabrication of the Corporate Rights doctrine and would continue to flourish. The people who make up those institutions, whether acting as individuals or in groups, would continue to enjoy the liberties we all hold dear and the Constitution enumerates. Corporations would continue to have legal standing to advocate on behalf of the people associated with them. But the fiction that an artificial corporate entity is itself entitled to the same rights of citizenship as people would come to an end.
Corporations are created by the people, acting through their governments. We grant them corporate charters that confer certain legal rights and privileges, like the ability to enter into contracts, limited liability and perpetual life. These rights serve an important and useful role in our economy. But our most sacred rights – those enshrined in the Constitution – should be reserved for “We the People.”
Mr. Will says that “controversies can be wonderfully clarified when people follow the logic of illogical premises to perverse conclusions.” Indeed. By conflating a good-faith attempt to overturn Citizens United with the killing of newborn babies, banning political speech and regulating religious practices, his column demonstrates the lengths to which the supporters of the Corporate Rights doctrine will go to protect their newfound gains.
Jim McGovern is a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts.