A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of attending a talk by David Cobb, director at Democracy Unlimited and spokesman for Move to Amend. David is a firebrand of a speaker who spoke to my community at a local church about the national movement to overturn Citizens United, and the specific movement underway in Washington State to get a public initiative on the ballot next year. I-735 would add Washington to the growing list of states asking for a federal Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
As you may know, Citizens United was a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2014 that addressed campaign spending by corporations. This ruling said that the government couldn’t restrict independent political spending- by anyone, including for-profit corporations. While companies and unions still can’t violate restrictions on direct campaign contributions, this decision cracked wide open the flow of money into media for buying airspace and paving the way for funneling funds to super PACs that wield vast sums of money that can be spent on non-direct campaign support and influence. The Supreme Court majority argued that restricting how funds were used by anyone- and by anyone, they mean individuals or corporations, putting them on equal legal grounds- was a violation of freedom of speech. However, as we are well aware, corporations with millions to spend on media and influence have a vastly outsized effect on politics compared to say, my $50 donation to the ACLU. As Justice Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”
Hence the rise of Move to Amend, which is working nationally to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Pretty much the only two ways this can happen is for Congress to pass meaningful campaign finance reform legislation- they tried that last year and it failed – or to push from the ground up through grassroots demand for an amendment. So far, 16 states have passed resolutions calling on congress to overturn Citizens United, and many more are in the works. In Washington, I-735 aims to establish that:
- Corporations do not hold the same rights as individuals
- Spending money is not equivalent to free speech
- Governments have the right and obligation to enact campaign regulation reforms, and
- Political spending must be transparent to the public.
Why does I-735 matter to climate change? The answer is pretty darned clear. As with EVERY major social and environmental issue, climate change included, when there are large, powerful, deep-pocketed corporate stakeholders that like the status quo, they will do everything in their power to keep it that way. Citizens United plays right into these desires. You can bet your bottom dollar that the Koch brothers, who have vast holdings in fossil fuel investments and who pour many millions of dollars a year into climate change denial, were thrilled with the outcome of Citizens United- as were the staunchly-opposed-to-emissions-reductions Chamber of Commerce, and the NRA.
Here’s the thing about overturning Citizens United, which David Cobb spoke to quite clearly: its something that every American can and should agree on. And by every American, I mean every American person, with possibly the exception of the CEOs and board members of some- but not all! – major powerful corporations, who are a tiny minority in this country. Because all of us, progressives to tea partiers, conservatives and liberals, and everyone in between- understands that civic engagement and equality under the law- the ability for all of us to have a voice that is heard- are fundamental and critical to the health of our democracy. When we allow those voices to be drowned out by the shouting of political lobbyist and superPACs buying political decisions, and doing so in a way that is fundamentally non-transparent and non-accountable, we undermine the foundation of our democracy. That is a very, very serious and scary thing, and it has repercussions for every kind of legislation that affects everything, from our daily lives to our security as a nation- from health care to climate change, from public education to our military preparedness. Everything. So David Cobb, I’m on board and signing I-735, even though I know its a long, slow, grassroots slog to the top- we can’t afford not to get there.