Two Years Later, No United Effort to Destroy Citizens United

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A previous Citizens United protest. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Citizens United celebrates its second anniversary on Saturday, just as the super PACs it spawned are beginning to dominate the 2012 presidential race. Good-bye, infancy; hello, terrible twos.

Since the Supreme Court decision was announced in 2010, progressive activists have been looking for a way to hit Ctrl+Z on Citizens and send corporate campaign dollars back from whence they came. Unfortunately, the resistance has proved long on indignation and short on strategic coordination. Dozens of nonprofits — from the Thoreau-inspired Rootstrikers to the stalwart Public Citizen — each armed with a Naderlike crusader–Harvard academic, have unleashed their own petitions and days of action. Meanwhile, in Congress, everyone from MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan to hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons to Current TV anchor Cenk Uygur has a pet anti-corporate-personhood amendment they’re backing (the Get Money Out Amendment, the Simmons Amendment, and the Wolf PAC Amendment, respectively).

So, of course, do the actual legislators. Senator Mark Udall’s (D-C.O.) is the most restrained, giving Congress the “power to regulate the raising and spending of money” in state and federal elections. Senator Bernie Sanders (I – V.T.), the chamber’s in-house socialist, would reject “corporate personhood” outright and ban for-profit firms from donating to political campaigns. And a rare bipartisan amendment, from Representatives John Yarmuth (D – K.Y.) and Walter Jones (R – N.C.) would strip campaign spending of its First Amendment protections, establish a mandatory public finance system for elections, and declare Election Day a federal holiday.

One cart, many horses.

Odds-wise, a constitutional amendment — which would be required to roll back Citizens, and perhaps even Buckley v. Valeo, which set today’s money-as-free-speech precedent — is a slightly worse bet than, say, the Mets Winning the World Series. Of more than 11,000 proposed modifications to the founding fathers’ handiwork, exactly 27 have been ratified. (The latest, a proviso on Congressional pay, was added in 1992 — 203 years after it was first drafted by James Madison.) There are two ways to amend the Constitution, only one of which — requiring two-thirds support in Congress and ratification by 38 states — has ever been used. The other, in which a super-majority of states call a new constitutional convention, bypassing Capitol Hill altogether, is even more of a moon shot. Still, it has lately attracted the attention of groups like Move to Amend, which hopes to sew the seeds of Citizens’ demise in local and state governments, rather than the halls of Congress. The idea is that a city-by-city, hearts-and-minds campaign might slowly pressure two-thirds of state legislatures into calling a Second Constitutional Convention.

So far, city councils in Los Angeles, Boulder, Portland, and, most recently, New York, have passed “motions of support” for an anti-corporate-personhood amendment. And in late December, Montana’s state supreme court upheld a 1912 ban on corporate donations to politicians, defying Citizens and tweaking the Roberts court in the process. But it will require a great deal more organizing (and public outrage) to turn that into nationwide legislative action. Sixty-two percent of Americans disagree with Citizens, according to a survey released yesterday, but until they all pick up pitchforks, we’re stuck with Code Pink rallies on the Capitol’s East Lawn.

To that end, Occupiers are coming out of hibernation today to mark the Citizens anniversary and picket federal courthouses across the country. In Washington, they’ll march on the High Court itself; in New York, a rally is planned outside the Thurgood Marshall courthouse on Centre Street.

For now, a 28th amendment remains well in the realm of political gimmickry. But the electoral shock-and-awe induced by Citizens hasn’t hit most states yet. Once it does, the lefty rabble may have something in the way of company.

Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and literary critic in Washington, D.C.