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Dems Take on Supreme Court's Giant Sell-Out of Our Democracy to Corporations

The Supreme Court handed over our political system to corporate power, and now some lawmakers are fighting to get it back.

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The DISCLOSE Act ( HR 5175), sponsored by Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, passed the House last month, but was killed by a unified GOP this week. DISCLOSE would have “required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the identity of the large donors, and to reveal their identities in any political ads they fund. It would also bar foreign corporations, government contractors and TARP recipients from making political expenditures.” After the vote, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said, “This is a sad day for our democracy. Not only does the Supreme Court give those special interests a huge advantage, but [now the Senate] says they should do it all in secret without any disclosure. That … eats at the very fabric of our democracy. It makes our people feel powerless and angry."

Because the Supreme Court has made campaign issue advertising a constitutional right for corporations, these efforts, while laudable, can only work at the margins. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, has taken a much bolder approach, offering a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress the explicit power to regulate expenditures for “political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity.”

The Citizens United decision, said Edwards, “is another reminder that the Court has gotten it wrong, the Congress has gotten it wrong and that we need to do something serious to restore fairness in our elections, and one of the ways that we do that is setting the balance right in terms of our constitutional protection of real people, and not just of corporate interests and corporate money.”  

Edwards’ amendment has attracted 24 co-sponsors to date, but her bill isn’t the only one. Congressmen Paul Hodes of New Hampshire ( HJ Res 82) and Leonard Boswell of Illinois ( HJ Res 68) have introduced variations in the House, and on Tuesday Max Baucus, D-Montana, one of the most conservative Dems in the upper chamber, joined Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, and Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, in introducing similar amendments in the Senate. ( Here is a summary of the differences between the various amendments.)

It’s an uphill climb -- amending the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress, and then must be ratified by 38 state legislatures. It’s been done only 27 times in the history of the Republic. And with both chambers of Congress in the hands of what David Sirota terms “the Money Party,” skeptics rightly point out that passing it would be a steep uphill climb.

Yet the Right has long used unlikely constitutional amendments to raise awareness of an issue and rally the Republican base (think: flag-burning). And even a losing effort to amend the constitution can have a significant impact on the political scene. “If we don’t seize it as an opportunity because it’s so discouraging, they win,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. Graves added that losing efforts like the proposed Victim’s Rights Amendment had nevertheless had a profound effect on the law. “A constitutional amendment is a powerful organizing tool,” she said, “and we must embrace it … we need to learn that we can win when we lose.”

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of support for Citizens United on the Right. This week, the Tea Party Patriots -- the well-heeled corporate lobby group that pulls the strings of much of the “grassroots movement” -- sent its rubes an “urgent alert” about the DISCLOSE Act, which it called an “effort to silence us before the elections.” They described it as being “tantamount to a witch-hunt.”