Effort builds to curb corporate political spending

By:  Thatcher Moats

MONTPELIER - It has been nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in the Citizens United case, giving corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money from their coffers to try to influence elections.

During that span of time, opponents of the decision haven't faded away. Instead, the energy from the Occupy Wall Street movement - which revolves largely around opposition to the sway that monied Americans and corporations hold over government - may be adding momentum for a renewed push against corporate campaign spending. 

But when the highest court in the land issues a ruling you disagree with, what can you do? 

That question is the subject of a public forum and panel discussion in Montpelier this Tuesday that will feature law professors; the former Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb; and the founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. 

"This free and open-to-the-public event seeks to kick-start a statewide conversation about avenues Vermont citizens and officials can pursue to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial and flawed ruling," according to a news release announcing the event. 

The public forum is one instance of Vermonters and others around the country trying to keep the movement against Citizens United alive, but there are numerous other examples.

Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, expects to introduce legislation in Montpelier next year that would create new disclosure requirements for major donors who have backed political advertisements. 

The Progressive Party is organizing a drive to get a Citizens United-related question on ballots in Vermont municipalities for Town Meeting Day next year. 

Bills and resolutions have been introduced this month in Congress to challenge Citizens United. 

Also earlier this month, activists in Vermont and around the country organized house parties where they planned for a "day of action" on Jan. 21, 2012 - the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United ruling. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a vocal opponent of the ruling, was featured via the Internet, beamed into the house parties via conference calls and webcasts.

Sanders has railed against Citizens United from day one, and he hasn't let up. 

"I think history will record that the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was one of the worst and most destructive decisions ever cast by the Supreme Court, and I think it's imperative that in every way we minimize the damage and ultimately overturn it, one way or another," Sanders said in an interview last week. 

One of the most widely discussed ways to attack Citizens United amounts to a frontal assault that goes to the heart of the ruling: a constitutional amendment that says corporations are not people and don't have First Amendment rights to voice their political opinions with money. 

Sanders supports such an amendment, which was introduced in Congress by Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern less than two weeks ago. 

Sanders typically is "not a great fan" of constitutional amendments, he said, because there are "a million ideas out there." Plus, the document has served the American people well, he said. 

But the Citizens United decision is so destructive, Sanders said, that "I do believe a constitutional amendment is in order." 

Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna said an amendment is the most direct solution, but she also named it the least likely to succeed. 

Two-thirds of Congress would have to approve the constitutional amendment, and then three-fourths of the states would have to approve it, according to the text of McGovern's resolution. 

Hanna said that threshold is almost certainly too high. 

"It's going to garner the most political attention and be the least politically viable," said Hanna, who is moderating the event in Montpelier.

The Citizens United case slammed the door on provisions in the McCain-Feingold Act that limited the rights of corporations to spend money during campaigns. 

But it left open other campaign finance reform methods that could soften the blow of the ruling, and officials and activists are working to exploit those parts of the ruling. One of those methods is adding more disclosure requirements, said Hanna. 

"I think there's room for more disclosure and greater disclaimer requirements and much greater transparency throughout an election," Hanna said. 

Pearson agrees. 

The legislation he "expects" to introduce next year - though he's not 100 percent certain it will happen - is modeled on a Connecticut law that requires the disclosure of top contributors for groups doing "electioneering."

"I don't wake up in the morning worried about disclosure. But we don't have a lot of tools we can use because of the Supreme Court ruling, so we have to look for ways to try to make it work within our limited power," Pearson said. 

Another more obscure movement that some argue could buffer the impact of Citizens United revolves around shareholder democracy and shareholder rights.

The basic idea is to require managers at companies to get approval from shareholders when making campaign donations.

This idea, advocated for years by people worried that companies use money for political spending that goes against the views of shareholders, could provide a check on spending, said Jennifer Taub, a Vermont Law School professor. 

Since the Citizens United ruling, advocates for campaign finance reform have shown a greater interest in this area of corporate governance, Taub said. 

"Prior to that, the people who did campaign finance law and advocacy weren't really connected with corporate law people," Taub said. 

To some opponents of Citizens United, however, nibbling around the edges with disclosure requirements or shareholder rights measures isn't enough. 

They also argue a constitutional amendment is not out of reach.

"We're not suggesting it can happen overnight, but we believe in order to preserve and protect democracy and protect self-governance, we must enact this 28th Amendment to the American Constitution," said John Bonifaz, founder and co-director of the Massachusetts-based Free Speech for People campaign. McGovern's resolution was based on language created by Free Speech for People, said Bonifaz. 

Bonifaz likened the battle over corporate donations to other difficult, but successful, movements in American history. 

"Women did not get the right to vote in this country because men in power thought it was a good idea," he said. "We didn't bring down a Jim Crow South in this country and end racial segregation because whites in power thought it was a good idea." 

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said a constitutional amendment is a huge challenge and "not something to be taken lightly." 

The Occupy Wall Street protests can't be separated from Citizens United; protestors have carried signs denouncing corporate personhood.

Burns said the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrates that the timing for an anti-Citizens United amendment may be right.

"There is certainly a real sentiment and disgust, I think, of the power of the wealthy elite and corporate elite," Burns said.