Council has part to play in overturning Citizens United

Posted: June 21, 2012

GIVEN ALL the crises we face within Philadelphia city limits, it may not be immediately obvious why City Council should pass a resolution tomorrow calling for a constitutional amendment to change the way we finance elections in the United States. . . . Or why Council should also vote to place a referendum on the November ballot so Philadelphia voters can go on record for an amendment.

But, as two years' experience with the fallout from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision have demonstrated, nearly every issue we face as a city, state and nation — and the increasing difficulty for elected officials to take action — can be traced in part to the influence of big money in the electoral process.

We knew it was going to be bad back in January 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a First  Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. Yet we did not know then how exactly the threat to democracy would unfold.

Now we do: record amounts of corporate money have been spent in elections in various states and localities. Corporate spending in 2010 was 427 percent higher than the previous midterm elections in 2006. Not surprisingly, that has been matched by a noticeable reluctance by politicians to pass legislation that displeases powerful industries.

On the national level, the Republican presidential primary could very well have been renamed the Billionaires' Race, since nearly every candidate had at least one, sometimes more, super-rich guy to bankroll an avalanche of attack ads. A district court decision based on Citizens United also means that individuals and corporations can anonymously invest big bucks to buy themselves a candidate by giving money to organizations known as SuperPACs. Justice Anthony Kennedy was dead-wrong to conclude that independent expenditures by corporations "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

Undoing the damage is not going to be easy or quick, but the movement has already begun. More than 1,000 localities — including Philadelphia — have initiated campaigns to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United by establishing that only human beings, not corporations, have constitutional rights, and that regulating political contributions and spending is not abridging freedom of speech. (For more information on the local campaign, visit phillydefendsdemocracy.org).

Philadelphia has an opportunity on Thursday to add its voice to the chorus when Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez introduces a resolution calling on Congress to "defend democracy from the undue influence of corporations" with a constitutional amendment. (The resolution has three co-sponsors: Curtis Jones, Marian Tasco and Cindy Bass.) We urge the rest of Council to support it.

At the same time, Council can take a national leadership role in the effort by initiating the process to put a referendum on the ballot. To qualify for the November election, the legislation would have to be introduced at toThursday's meeting, with a hearing held in the fall.

Passing a constitutional amendment is a years' long process, so the time to begin is now, and the discussion it starts is important to have. We can get back to a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" only if we start from the bottom up. n

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