I-1329: A Lesson in Failure

I-1329 failed to make it to the ballot. I can’t say that I am surprised or even disappointed.

It is certainly true that we need to undo the damage to democracy inflicted by dozens of Supreme Court decisions over the past hundred years or more, including recent decisions such as Citizens United and McCutcheon. MoveToAmend (MTA) has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that has been introduced in Congress as HJR 29. I wholeheartedly believe that this language is the best of all the proposals currently under consideration. David Cobb of MTA told me personally that he would not support any of the other proposed amendments, because they were all in some way flawed.

That’s why I am surprised that David Cobb and the rest of the folks at MoveToAmend decided to support an initiative in Washington State (I-1329) that purported, yet failed, to fully address the issues of corporate personhood and money as speech.

For example, HJR 29 states: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.”

I-1329 Section 3 stated: “The rights of people protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.” (Emphasis added.)

The language in I-1329 was flawed in the same way that the 14th Amendment is flawed, because lawyers could argue that corporations are people, so corporations have the rights of natural persons. The language in HJR 29 does not have this “circular logic” flaw which in the case of the 14th Amendment has been exploited by corporate lawyers for generations.

Regarding money as speech, HJR 29 states “The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be speech under the First Amendment.”

I-1329 did not contain this language in Section 3; therefore, it failed to address fully the issue of money as speech. The initiative danced around this issue in earlier sections, but just like a resolution, it doesn’t much matter what you say in the “whereas” clauses; it’s the “be it resolved” sentences that really matter, and in the case of I-1329, Section 3 is the “be it resolved” section.

So what, you may ask, did I-1329 resolve to do? It would have called for a Constitutional amendment allowing federal and state governments to place limits on campaign contributions and requiring disclosure thereof. Don’t get me wrong. I think this is a good idea. It would restore the constitutionality of limits on campaign contributions such as those imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) as amended in 1974 and in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, aka McCain-Feingold Act) of 2002. But really all this does is set the clock back a couple of decades. Do any of us really believe that money did not unduly influence politics in 1974, much less 2002?

The real core of the problem lies in the need to reverse a nearly 200 year history of the Supreme Court granting constitutional rights to artificial entities (such as corporations). The amendment suggested in I-1329 would not have addressed this problem any more effectively than current efforts in Congress to pass the similarly limited Udall Amendment (S.J. Res 19) and House companion, the Deutch Amendment (H.J. Res 119). Both of these proposals would allow limits to be imposed on campaign contributions without addressing the elephantine issue of corporate constitutional rights. Worse, such proposals, if passed, would be praised as “overturning Citizens United”, and greeted with banners proclaiming “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”, meanwhile killing any real chance of preventing plutocratic control of our republic, and spelling the end of the American experiment in representative democracy.

Interesting side-bar: MTA has called for S.J. Res 19 and H.J. Res 119 to be amended to state conclusively that corporate entities are not entitled to constitutional rights and to establish that spending money is not a protected form of speech. I find this strange since they did not call for I-1329 to include this essential language.

In conclusion, I would like to add that the efforts to get I-1329 on the ballot in Washington were doomed not because the bar is set too high for the number of signatures required, but because the organization leading the signature gathering efforts, known as WAmend, misunderstood the goals of the movement to end corporate personhood, misrepresented the proposed legislation as being something that it patently was not, and through oppressive behaviors alienated many who would otherwise have supported signature gathering efforts.

The clearest example of this is the wrong-headed missive I received from WAmend announcing that they planned to start using paid signature gatherers and asking for donations to cover the cost–with donations to be matched by an outside, unnamed entity. In the days and weeks that followed, WAmend precipitously backed off from this position and ended the campaign by trumpeting the righteousness of a campaign that relied only on volunteers to collect signatures. Too bad they did not understand the people power aspect of the movement when they started the campaign. Perhaps, if they had, they would have been more successful.

Local Resolutions Needed to Overturn Citizens United

In many localities, groups of concerned citizens have approached members of their city or county council asking them to adopt a resolution denouncing corporate personhood and overturning the infamous Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court that equates money with speech and allows unlimited spending on electioneering by corporate entities that are not even required to disclose their participation to voters.

Councils that pass such a resolution will be joining a growing list of more than 100 municipalities across the nation who have taken a similar stand against uncontrolled spending by transnational corporations and the Super PACs they have created to influence our elections.

A common concern expressed by local officials when asked to vote on such a resolution is “How does this affect our city?” Advocates must urge their officials to bear in mind that the idea of corporations having the same rights as persons under the Constitution has been used in the courts repeatedly and systematically to undermine and strike down laws that were enacted in cities, counties and states to protect local small businesses, to ensure the health and well being of their citizens, or to maintain the sustainability of the local environment.

Transnational corporations have only one motivation: profit. Their motto is, “We will do whatever it takes to extract, manufacture or sell our product at the greatest possible profit to our shareholders, and your laws can’t stop us.” They seek to use the twin notions of corporate personhood and money as speech to exercise power over the people and to choose their elected representatives for them.

Move to Amend supplies a toolkit for organizers seeking to get a resolution passed by their local city or county council. By passing these resolutions, municipalities will affirm this basic American truth: Our government should be of, by, and for the people; not of, by, and for the corporations.

Corporations Don't Bleed

“Corporations Don’t Bleed” is the slogan adopted by Free Speech for People, one of several organizations working to put electoral power into the hands of everyday Americans by reducing the undue influence on political decision-making giant multi-national corporations currently wield. Electioneering by corporations using their dollars to sway politicians has always been a part of the American political landscape, but recent events have blown the lid off attempts to limit and/or disclose the amount of money that corporations contribute to campaigns. The January 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allows unlimited and secret contributions by corporations both foreign and domestic into the coffers of politicians seeking public office, removing limits imposed by the McCain-Feingold Act of 1971. The Citizens United decision hinges on the idea that corporations are persons and entitled to the same rights. But as the phrase “corporations don’t bleed” aptly points out, a legal entity is not a human being, and the rights spelled out in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution were never intended to apply to corporations.

Any laws passed to try to reinstate campaign finance reform would be immediately challenged by corporate lawyers and just as instantly struck down by five right-wing judicial activists posing as Supreme Court justices; therefore, we have no choice but to undertake serious, long-term grassroots action. Only a Constitutional amendment will carry sufficient legal weight to overrule the Court’s decision. Despite the often cited failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, this has been done before: both the 11th and the 24th amendments overturned Supreme Court decisions.

It is important to keep in mind that this effort is not about Democrat vs. Republican or liberal vs. conservative. Democracy means one person, one vote; not one dollar, one vote. This value is shared by a vast majority of Americans, from Democratic Socialists to the Tea Party, so don’t be afraid to talk up this issue with your libertarian friends. Just make sure they are aware that you are not anti-business. Remind them that small businesses will benefit if the giant corporate behemoths who are trying to squeeze them out of existence have less influence on local, state and national politics.

Activists across the nation are working to pass a 28th Amendment to abolish corporate personhood. Meanwhile, a coalition of advocacy groups has been meeting in and around South King County to discuss goals, strategy and tactics for the massive outreach efforts, public education, and legislative action that are needed to move this project forward. About 40 people from various organizations (MoveOn, Move To Amend, Olympia, Backbone Campaign, Free Speech for People, Washington Public Campaigns, 65th St. Change Gang, Involved Democracy, Democratic Socialists of America, UU Voices for Justice) attended a meeting on July 28th in Des Moines. There was consensus achieved on the goal of working to urge the Washington State Legislature to pass HJM 4005 or SJM 8007 in the 2012 legislative session in Olympia. (These joint memorials call for a 28th Amendment to revoke corporate personhood and were proposed but did not make it out of committee in 2011. In the opinion of this writer, they do not go far enough since they do not contain a provision to establish that money is not speech, an essential ingredient to undoing the damage inflicted by Citizens United and establishing true democracy.)

While pursuing statewide action is laudable, I cannot emphasize enough the need to continue to work locally. Along those lines, efforts continue to pass city charter amendments calling for an end to corporate personhood in both Olympia and Spokane. Efforts are also underway to pass resolutions calling for a 28th Amendment in each and every legislative district and county in the state, and your help is needed to make this happen. This is exactly the sort of local action recommended by the national leadership of such groups as Move To Amend. What are you doing in your city?

If you are interested in setting up or joining a delegation to visit your state representative or senator or working to pass a local resolution, please send your contact information, along with your legislative district to me at involveddemocracy@gmail.com.