While the U.S. Supreme Court treats corporations like people who can use money as a form of expression, a handful of congressman -- Democrats, Independents and even a Republican -- have taken steps to overturn the high court's classification this year.
Campaign finance laws, in addition to widening income inequality, were introduced into the public discourse toward the tail-end of 2011 following the popularization of the Occupy Wall Street movement. There have been four different resolutions introduced by various Democratic and Independent Senators and Representatives since the movement began, while another resolution was proposed only days before the protests began.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the corporation in Citizens United, its controversial lawsuit against the Federal Election Committee. The high court, in a 5-4 decision, determined that corporations have the same free speech protections as individual Americans under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, thus making it unconstitutional for government to regulate the money spent to influence elections.
Multiple states that had previously instituted laws prohibiting or limiting independent expenditures by unions and corporations were forced to change those laws to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
Soon after the decision, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced legislation aiming to undue the decision known as the Democracy is Strengthened By Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act (DISCLOSE) Act. The measure, which aimed to create transparency mechanisms to give the general public more information regarding corporate and special interest campaign expenditures as well as banning U.S. corporations controlled by foreign governments from using campaign contributions to influence elections, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives but ultimately failed in the Senate.
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Proposals allowing Congress and States to Regulate Political Contributions
Less than a week before Occupy protesters initially pitched their tents in New York's Zuccotti Park, U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., introduced the first of such amendments on Sept. 12. The proposal, which has 27 cosponsors, would clarify that nothing in the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress and the states from imposing content-neutral regulations and restrictions on political contributions by corporations or any corporate entity. While it would reverse the Citizens United decision in the sense that it would allow the federal government to limit corporate political contributions, the amendment would not specifically reverse the part of the ruling that states corporations are protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment, which some critics have said does not present a comprehensive solution to the large issue of corporate personhood.
The Library of Congress Web site reports the amendment was referred to the House subcommittee on the Constitution on Sept. 23, its last major action.
Similarly, a subsequent amendment introduced into the U.S. Senate on Nov. 1 by Sen. Tom Udall, D- N.M. -- along with eight co-sponsors -- would also solidify the fact that Congress can regulate the raising and spending of money and in kind equivalents with respect to Federal election, although the text also does not reverse the idea of corporate personhood that was legitimized by the Citizens United decision.
If the Supreme Court refuses to allow Congress and individual states to regulate the role of money in our elections, we must amend the Constitution to change that, Udall wrote in a November op-ed published by The Huffington Post.
After introducing the amendment, Udall and his co-sponsors launched a petition to gain public support for the proposal. The petition, which asks Americans to sign if they support the constitutional amendment to give Congress and states the authority to limit corporate and special interest money in our elections, has received over 123,700 signatures as of Dec. 20.
Proposals Reversing Corporate Personhood
On Nov. 17, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., introduced the first piece of legislation to take its name from the Occupy movement: the Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy (OCCUPIED) Amendment. The amendment -- an exact replica of which was introduced in another resolution on Dec. 8 by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- would ban the ability of corporation to use money to influence political elections at the federal, state and local level, clarifies the fact that corporations are not living people, and therefore cannot be protected by the Constitution. It also reestablishes Congress' authority to limit political campaign contributions by corporations, candidates, individuals and other private entities.
Americans of all stripes agree that for far too long, corporations have occupied Washington and drowned out the voices of the people. I introduced the OCCUPIED Amendment because the days of corporate control of our democracy must end. It is time to return the nation's capital and our democracy to the people, Deutch said in a statement.
Sanders' companion measure in the Senate is called the Saving American Democracy Amendment.
Finally, on Dec. 20 U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., introduced a bipartisan joint resolution with Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina aiming to establish that financial expenditures and in-kind contributions do not qualify as free speech protected by the First Amendment. In a divergence from similar proposals, the amendment would also make Election Day a legal holiday and enable Congress to enact a mandatory public financing system to provide funding for political candidates running for federal office.
Until we get big money out of politics, we will never be able to responsibly address the major issues facing American families - and that starts by ensuring our elections and elected officials cannot be bought by the well-off and well-connected, Yarmouth said in a statement.
Moreover, in a statement Yarmouth and Jones said corporate spending in campaigns has shot up by 427 percent between the 2006 midterm elections and 2010 midterm elections, a huge increase they allege the Citizens Untied decision contributed to.
Although several polls have indicated a majority of Americans are in support of legislation to reinstate restrictions on corporate finance spending, passing a constitutional amendment is more complex than other legislation.To add an amendment, both the House and Senate must pass the proposal with a two-thirds majority, which then must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
The 27th Amendment, the latest to be added to the Constitution, was ratified in 1992. The amendment, which prohibits any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next term of office, had quite a journey before it became law -- the proposal was initially submitted to the states for ratification in 1789.