Archive for the ‘Congress’ Category

What can you do if you want to help stamp money out of politics? Well, Ben Cohen, the Ben from Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, has an idea: stamp money.

The founder of one of the biggest ice cream brands in the country is teaming up with Public Citizen, Move to Amend and People for the American Way to garner support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows corporations to spend unlimited money to influence elections, and related cases.

To raise awareness, Ben & Jerry’s are calling on concerned citizens to stamp dollar bills with slogans such as “corporations are not people” and “not to be used for buying elections.” These stamps are being sold at cost at the Stamp Stampede website (http://stampstampede.org/shop/).

“It’s some monetary jujitsu – using money to get money out of politics,” Cohen told the USA Today.

The Stamp Stampede calculates that every bill will be seen by approximately 875 people in its lifetime. If 100 people stamped 10 bills every day, the entire population of the United States would have seen the message at least once within a year. Activists are being encouraged to stamp as many bills as they can to exercise their right to free speech and raise awareness of the dangers of corporate money in politics.

Cohen has consulted with his lawyer and assures activists that stamping dollar bills is legal. The First Amendment protects the stamps because they are political messages that don’t damage the bills or render them unusable.

You can get more involved with Public Citizen’s efforts for a constitutional amendment at www.democracyisforpeople.org.

 

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to open the floodgates to unlimited corporate expenditures in elections has recently been thrust back into the spotlight by the international Occupy movement. And rightly so, given that the Americans creating a “church of dissent” in urban public spaces are echoing popular discontent with a broken political process– one where the voices of “We the People” seem to be drowned out by powerful special interests all too often.

Thus, it’s fitting that, as they’ve cast a spotlight on a ruling that is widely reviled by Americans across the political spectrum, Occupy participants have inadvertently highlighted another sad result of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  As Professor David Kairys observed the day the ruling was handed down (full disclosure: I conducted research on Citizens United under Professor Kairys’ supervision in 2010), corporations’ attempts to influence elections through unlimited spending are now granted a heightened level of constitutional protection compared to, say, everyday citizens:

Political cartoon by Cory M. Grenier, via Flickr.

“Taken as a whole, the conservative court’s First Amendment jurisprudence has enlarged the speech rights available to wealthy people and corporations and restricted the speech rights available to people of ordinary means and to dissenters.”

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment in recent decades specifically limits Occupy encampments’ potential recourse against government restrictions. As Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union explained, today’s gatherings are potentially limited by the Court’s 1983 decision in Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence (“CCNV”).

CCNV upheld the National Park Service’s decision to prevent advocates for the homeless from sleeping in Lafayette Park (across the street from the White House) and on the National Mall, and limit them to daytime protest. Camping out in the park was meant to be a central part of the activists’ critical message about Reagan administration policies. Nevertheless, the government’s valid interests in public safety and the “aesthetic value” of national parkland for tourists were given broad deference by the Court (too much deference according to the late Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent).

CCNV doesn’t give state and local officials carte blanche to evict today’s encampments, of course; as Dahlia Lithwick points out, it is an open legal question “whether the regulations being used to shut down protest are bogus attempts to use neutral-sounding rules to suppress speech.”  And as Dunn notes, he was able to successfully represent advocates in New York who wanted to sleep on the sidewalk in front of Gracie Mansion to protest then Mayor Giuliani’s policies.

Still, when you look at CCNV alongside other court rulings over the past few decades that have limited the scope and form of individual free speech rights, the clear reality is that the First Amendment is far from a surefire defense against government regulation.

In sharp contrast, Citizens United places even modest, bipartisan restrictions on the manner and target of corporate spending in elections into the category of constitutional “strict scrutiny.” They were deemed a “classic example of censorship” to be vigorously guarded against according to Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Kennedy simply brushed aside Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissenting observation that corporations still wield the ability to form political action committees, have their executives and board members make individual contributions, and otherwise lobby and make their preferences clear. As a result, there was no deferential balancing of interests like in CCNV. Laws restricting corporate spending are presumptively unconstitutional, and can’t be upheld unless the government has an extremely compelling reason for them.

And lo and behold! Kennedy and his colleagues determined that Congress’ concern for the corrosive impact of unlimited corporate money is simply too speculative. Without hard and fast evidence of quid pro quo corruption, efforts to halt the undermining of the quintessential public forum at the heart of our democracy– the elections in which individual, and not corporate, citizens cast their ballots– are for naught.

So even though corporate spending to back political candidates was never imagined to be a form of protected speech (let alone subject to such elevated protection) by the Framers, thanks to Citizens United, it has been placed at the heart of the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, citizens who have not incorporated themselves and aren’t flush with cash, but wish to express their displeasure with the ruling and the broader distortion of our democracy, have greater restrictions than large corporations on their right to speak out.

It is precisely this skewed reality that makes me, as a student of American history, a newly-minted lawyer, and a citizen of this great nation, proud to be a part of the Democracy is for People campaign’s effort to pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.  If you’re equally outraged, and equally impassioned to do something about it, then get involved in this movement today.

Sean Siperstein is a Legal Fellow with the Democracy is For People campaign.

Money plays too large of a role in elections. To compete in an increasingly money-driven system, candidates spend their days “dialing for dollars” and meeting with interests that can bankroll their campaigns. The recent Supreme Court case Citizens United only makes matters worse, allowing organizations to spend vast sums of money in the dark of night. The public is losing faith in our campaign finance system and rightfully so.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights took a step in the right direction Tuesday morning. Led by Senator Durbin, the subcommittee held a hearing on The Fair Elections Now Act, which would offer a new system for financing campaigns. The Fair Elections Now Act would allow candidates who value grassroots rather than corporate support, to accept matching public funds with small private donations. As a result, there would be increased transparency and accountability for our elected officials, who would respond to voters’ interests instead of deep-pocketed donors’.

Much of the hearing focused on the impact Citizens United has had on elections. Public Citizen’s recent report, “12 Months After” confirms that the damage is clear. Corporate expenditures are at an all-time high, corporate lobbyists wield influence like none other, and transparency is on the decline.

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, the Brennan’s Center Monica Youn, and Tea-Party election attorney Cleta Mitchell testified before the subcommittee.

Simpson presented a real-world view of electioneering to the committee. He offered a grim picture of the current system, as our elected representatives spend too much of their time “begging” for money. He said legislators hate this aspect of their job, but they continue to do it because it’s necessary to win. However, as a result, America suffers. Simpson ardently voiced his support for changing the current scheme so our elected officials can do what really matters: meeting with other legislators, debating bills on the floor, and offering solutions to our nation’s problems.

Youn spoke of how our campaign finance system allows for “Godiva Chocolate” organizations to thrive. They are “Godiva Chocolate” because they are rich, dark, and we have no idea what’s inside them. Under the current regime, sophisticated and shadowy organizations commit what amounts to legal money laundering. They direct vast amounts of money for their political causes, with no accountability. What Youn was referring to is becoming clearer with every election cycle. We’ve all seen the commercials, “Paid for by Americans for mom and apple pie,” but we don’t know who “mom and apple pie” really are.

Mitchell didn’t see an issue with any of this. She believes our election system works just fine. She even said that it was part of elected officials’ jobs to fundraise, just like it’s her job as an attorney to seek clients. However, unlike attorneys, our elected officials should not spend their time selling out to the highest bidder.

Senator Franken, who was nonplussed at her testimony, asked her how it’s acceptable that corporations can spend large amounts of money in campaigns, without disclosing it to their shareholders. She dodged the question, saying Franken was “confused.” They tussled for a few minutes when Mitchell, seemingly triumphant said, “We just had a confuse-off.” To which Franken retorted, “Yes, and I won.”

Just as Durbin and Franken challenged the status quo in the hearing today, we must continue to demand that our elected officials are responsive to the people, not other interests. The Fair Elections Now Act is a good start.

Today I taped an upcoming TV debate criticizing the House Republican vote to defund the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as ordered by the US Supreme Court. My opponent in the debate, Fred Smith, argued that Obama’s EPA was a “rogue” agency hell-bent on killing jobs and harming small businesses. I reminded Mr. Smith that Obama’s EPA ordered that small businesses be exempt from the proposed greenhouse gas emission rules, as only large entities emitting at least 25,000 tons of CO2 per year would be subject to the regulations. Now, it is unclear whether the EPA can legally exclude such small emitters from the rules, as the Clean Air Act doesn’t expressly allow for it. But instead of working with the Administration on clarifying the law to ensure that we have a science-based approach to addressing climate change that goes after major corporate polluters while holding small businesses harmless, but instead they are pursuing a cynical strategy to demonize public health protections and question the science. This is particularly appauling given the high-profile flip-flop of Rep. Fred Upton, who in the recent past acknowledged the science behind climate change and supported legislative efforts to address it – but now leads the effort to attack the science and demonize efforts to protect public health. Shame, Mr. Upton, Shame.

Tyson Slocum Directs Public Citizen’s Energy Program

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