Living in Society

A Dose of Citizens United Reality

Writing in The Nation, John Nichols put the best possible face on what he described in as, “the broad-based national campaign to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that ushered in a new era of big-money politics.” He was referring to the high court’s decision in Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission.

Public Citizen, Move to Amend and others have organized, launched petitions, and convinced legislators in 16 states, the District of Columbia, and about 500 municipalities to support overturning Citizens United. There is tangible evidence in the form of resolutions and referendum results. As Nichols indicated, 2013 has been a banner year for efforts to overturn Citizens United.

At the same time, virtually no one I encounter in rural Iowa knows of this movement specifically. People can agree on generalities: that money is property, that humans are people, that corporations have property, and despite Mitt Romney’s assertion at the Iowa State Fair, corporations are not people.

People also don’t know much about the Citizens United case. They don’t know that it was about a conservative group airing a film critical of Hillary Clinton on television. They don’t know that the McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) prohibited airing the film within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. They don’t know, and for the most part don’t care, that McCain-Feingold’s regulation of how corporations spend money in campaigns was found to be unconstitutional. What my neighbors do know is a lot of money is spent on politics, and they get sick of television advertisements when it gets close to elections and tune out.

Iowa Move to Amend has had an uphill climb, made more difficult by the departure of Marybeth Gardam, who left the state. Gardam was the grassroots organization’s leader and spark plug. As a grassroots organization, Iowa Move to Amend will proceed without her, but whatever activity there is in Iowa regarding Citizens United will be concentrated in the liberal urban areas, especially Iowa City and Des Moines. The statewide reach that Gardam strove for and could well have organized is on hold with her gone. The Iowa web page on the Move to Amend site hasn’t been updated since 2012.

Groups of citizens pursue the idea of amending the constitution, but saying it is one thing— doing it is a rarity. There have been 27 amendments to the constitution. The last one, related to when pay raises take effect for members of congress, was ratified in 1992— more than 200 years after it was introduced. With an electorate informed by a corporate media owned by a small number of corporations, gaining consensus among three fourths of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment seems improbable without the broad based, bipartisan support for which groups like Move to Amend strive.

Good people are involved with getting corporate money out of politics. Three and a half years after the Citizens United ruling, proponents of a constitutional amendment are less than half way there, which puts any real action beyond the 2016 general election, and maybe further. As Nichols indicated, the cup may be half full, and an amendment may be advanced. However, the political reality is that corporate money will remain in politics for the foreseeable future unless a fire is lit under the movement to amend the constitution. Based on what we see in Iowa, we are a long way from ignition.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa.