The nation’s highest court decided two years ago that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals could create so-called Super PACs, which have the ability to make unlimited and anonymous donations to political campaigns.
It’s a decision that must be fought, some said in Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon.
About 60 people turned out to a forum at Washington State University Vancouver to learn more about the new power corporations have to influence politics thanks to the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Essentially, the court ruled that the First Amendment rights that people have could extend to corporations, and that spending money is a type of speech. So, a regulation limiting how much money a company can donate to a politician through a political action committee would be an unconstitutional type of censorship.
According to the minority opinion written in the case, this idea of corporate personhood goes against the common sense of the American people.
“How many times is the word ‘corporation’ in the Constitution? Zero,” said Eric Byler, one of two speakers at Wednesday’s forum.
Byler is co-founder of the left-leaning Coffee Party USA movement. Coffee Party USA formed in January 2010 in response to the Tea Party movement against taxes.
Byler said that when corporations are allowed to give unlimited money to lawmakers and pay lobbyists to influence lawmakers, the desires of big-business drown out the voices of everyday citizens. That leaves lawmakers worrying more about losing funding from major donors than losing votes from constituents.
Corporations can threaten lawmakers with: “I’ll just remove you, and I’ll put in another senator,” Byler said. Often, the corporations with the most money can spend the most on negative advertising and win the election.
But Byler’s message wasn’t completely cynical. He pointed to the power citizens have in the digital age to mobilize and fight for causes online. He said that people should participate in online conversations about change, protest the Citizens United decision, and organize to undo it.
One way to undo the decision would require amending the U.S. Constitution, because the Supreme Court has decided that the Constitution allows this type of political spending, said WSUV Professor Carolyn Long, the other speaker at the forum. She said the court has been recognizing corporations as people in other ways for years, especially when it comes to allowing them to sue or sign contracts, and corporations have slowly gained more constitutional rights.
According to the Citizens United decision, corporations could form less-regulated political action committees — or Super PACs — as long as the PACs are not directly connected to a candidate. This means a company, union group, wealthy person, or even a former employee of a politician could create a Super PAC.
During recent elections, “the role of Super PACs has increased enormously,” Long said, adding that in
the past, the courts have ruled that corporate money can have a “distorting” effect on elections.
After Long and Byler finished speaking, members in the audience chimed in with a variety of opinions. Christine Aronson of Portland encouraged people to fight corporations by voting with their pocketbooks.
If a business is influencing politics in an unfair way, “I would like to see us ban together and say, ‘I’m never buying this product again,’” said Aronson, a member of Coffee Party USA and Move to Amend, another group at the event.
Vancouver-resident Cindi Fisher suggested that in addition to fighting Citizens United with a constitutional amendment, people should try to pass resolutions at the local level that make a stand against corporate personhood.
“We can’t wait for the constitutional amendment,” Fisher said, adding that the amendment process could take years.
This month, the Portland City Council passed a resolution stating in part that “corporations should not receive the same legal rights as natural persons do, that money is not speech and that independent expenditures should be regulated.”