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As The Anti-Citizens United Movement Grows, The Plutocrats Will Surely Attack

Democracy reformers can surmount the coming corporatist attacks.

Fresh off some overwhelming victories at the ballot box in Montana and Colorado, proponents of a constitutional amendment have some wind in our sails.  By margins of three to one, voters in these states, and in more than 175 cities and towns, explicitly instructed their congressional delegation to support an amendment to mend the damage to our Constitution wrought by the Supreme Court’s misguided ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.

These victories may mark a turning point for the issue that ironically may lead to a new onslaught of opposition.  As Mahatma Gandhi noted, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”  We will soon move from the stage of ridicule to fight, which means that to be taken seriously supporters of an amendment to roll back the encroachments of the Supreme Court upon self government must now begin answering some serious questions.

Before addressing those questions, however, it is worth reflecting on just how far this movement has come.  In the aftermath of the 1976 ruling Buckley v. Valeo, which struck down mandatory limits on candidate campaign spending that Congress had enacted in response to Watergate, Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina began a lonely crusade to overturn the Court. He was joined by then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. 

The high watermark for their effort came in 1993 when 53 Senators, including six Republicans, voted in favor of a sense of the Senate resolution stating “Congress should adopt a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution that would empower Congress and the States to set reasonable limits on campaign expenditures.”  They were ignored.  No advocacy organizations backed their efforts.  No newspapers covered this fairly remarkable vote.

Hollings persisted undeterred, only to face ridicule and scorn.  By 1997, one organization (U.S.PIRG) began backing the amendment, but others such as Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the League of Women Voters kept their distance.  The argument then, still made by some today, was that an amendment was so difficult to pass that it amounted to a harmful distraction from goals that were more achievable in the short term.  Most reformers have now abandoned this zero sum logic and realized that a vibrant effort on all fronts will help to pass disclosure requirements, ethics laws, public financing of campaigns, and a constitutional amendment rather than any proposal serving as a distraction from the others.

But back in 1997, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell was more than happy to use the lack of support among a broader reform community to ridicule Hollings on the Senate floor.  “This ought to be a no brainer,” McConnell jeered. “Even Common Cause is against this proposal.  Even the Washington Post is against this proposal... In short, this proposal doesn’t have any constituency.  Even the reform groups are not for it.” Support dropped to 38 Senators.  By 2000, it was down to 33.

By overreaching so egregiously in Citizens United, the Supreme Court breathed new life into the movement for a campaign finance amendment and revived a discussion about corporate constitutional rights.  When 75 percent of voters in a conservative state like Montana or a presidential battleground state like Colorado cast official ballots backing a constitutional amendment, we have moved past the stage of ridicule.  Beyond the two states where voters have explicitly instructed Congress to support an amendment to respond to the Citizens United ruling, a majority of legislators in nine other states have formally endorsed the idea.  More than 400 cities and towns are on record in support of an amendment either through their city councils, town meetings, or direct votes of the people.  House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama have both said we need an amendment process to overrule Citizens United.