Blog 21. Needed Now: A Constitutional Amendment

In Blog 20, I described the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, which gave corporations the constitutional right to free speech and to make unlimited monetary donations to political advertising and commentary. Reportedly, Senator (and previous presidential candidate) John McCain  (R-AZ) said Citizens United is “one of the worst decisions I have ever seen.”

The feedback

Citizens United has greatly enlarged the money feedback loop (Blog 16) in which for-profit business uses money to influence government, thereby decreasing regulation (e.g. investment banking) or increasing pork (e.g. military-industrial complex)—thereby increasing profits–which can in turn increase the influence of business on government. The end outcome is not democracy and competitive markets, but governance by a few monopolistic conglomerations controlled by a few individuals. As Meadows pointed out, any system with unchecked positive feedback will self-destruct.  A college freshman who has passed his first course in electrical engineering will tell you the same thing.

Movement for the amendment

There is a groundswell of pressure for a constitutional amendment to limit corporate (or anybody’s) power to control government through political money, but the news media says nothing. Why? A column in The Nation magazine called the amendment “America’s most dynamic (yet under-covered) movement.” As of July 4, 2013, 16 states had passed resolutions supporting a constitutional amendment to nullify the Citizens United decision. More than 400 local governments had passed similar resolutions. More than two million people have signed a petition, and reportedly some 125 members of congress have backed the amendment. A reported 70-80% of voters support such an amendment, yet most of us don’t find a daily update in the newspaper—in fact, some of us haven’t noticed one article in the major media. The civil rights movement attracted attention. Why not this?

Because the story has stretched over three years, perhaps it’s regarded as old news. Or, the “why” may be because most of the print and broadcast news media are controlled by a few corporations. But before I adopt that paranoid suspicion, I note that there seems to be no single reliable place where you can find the facts, no central coordination of this diffuse national desire to protect democracy, and no coherent, consistent, highly visible movement in Congress, a body which is so polarized that little can happen. Fortunately, there’s plenty of action on the internet, but you have to sort wheat from chaff yourself. Here’s a few facts. I hope they’re accurate.

A few facts

Constitutional amendments to counter Citizens United have been submitted in the 111th Congress (2010), the 112th Congress (2011-12) and again in the 113th Congress (2013-14). In January 2013, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) introduced two amendments. HJR 20 would empower Congress and the states to regulate political spending, and HJR 21 would overturn Citizens United. On March 12, 2013, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) submitted a “Democracy is for People” amendment to restrict campaign contributions only to people, not corporations. In June, 2013 Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) each proposed constitutional amendments to reform campaign finance. I may have overlooked other current amendment proposals. I haven’t found a single review that covrs all congressional actions.

Other bills offer other limits to political contributions without requiring a constitutional amendments. Some bills would require that corporations disclose their political contributions to shareholders. Other bills would establish public financing for federal elections. It would take dogged determination to sort out all the proposals, but a “Follow the Money” report documents why multiple actions are needed. States with no contribution limits have non-competitive races, with candidates getting most of their political contributions from large donors.  States with contribution limits have more competitive races in which candidates get funding from many small donors.

A few information sources

The nonprofit organization, Public Citizen,  seems to provide the most extensive coverage of the response to Citizens United, but unfortunately some of the material on their various pages appears to be out of date. In 2010, Public Citizen launched a petition drive at “,” but the website was superceded by  in 2011. Unfortunately, misleading old material remains scattered on the web to confuse readers. Many of the Pub Cit pages offer opportunity to sign the petition, and to join in support.

People For the American Way (PFAW) offers news on Citizens United in a topical sub-heading, but they also provide an obscure separate page  that lists which persons in congress have, or have not “yet”, supported an amendment. For example, this page indicates that both senators from New Mexico have endorsed an amendment, but no NM representatives have yet done so.

The Huffington Post offers a good review of current actions in Congress, the states, and interest groups. For our New Mexico readers, DFNM provides related local news such as Udall’s amendment or oil subsidies, but you may need to scan down the page to find what you seek.

PRWatch and PubCit  review the Sanders-Deutch 2013 amendment. Unfortunately, an internet search may provide confusing results as one or more amendments offered in previous years also carry the Sanders-Deutch label.

How is an amendment done?

(The following paragraph is copied from a Public Citizen page.)

There are a few ways to do it. An amendment must be proposed either by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress or by a constitutional convention convened when the legislatures of 2/3 of the states so request. The amendment has to be ratified either by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states or by conventions in 3/4 of the states, depending on which means of ratification Congress proposes. All of the existing amendments to the Constitution, of which there are now 27, were proposed by Congress, and all but one were ratified by state legislatures. The convention route has never been used for proposing an amendment, and was used only once for ratifying an amendment (the 21st, which eliminated Prohibition).