Five years ago, a Supreme Court decision severely damaged democracy in America. The Kauai County Council is trying to do something about it.
Do you remember last fall’s endless ads about the GMO moratorium? Multinational corporations spent $7.9 million on ads against Maui’s Voter Initiative on genetically engineered organisms, more than $350 for every “no” vote.
In January, these companies sued to overturn a Kauai County law that limits biotech crop and pesticide use. Certainly they would spend comparably on Kauai, given the chance.
There is an enormous issue here, but it’s not just GMOs and pesticides. It’s Citizens United.
Jan. 21, 2015, was the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s decision on what corporations and unions can spend to sway voters through independent communications like TV ads. It removed all limits on such spending.
Citizens United led to other court decisions that allowed “Super PACs,” the groups through which wealthy individuals can also spend unlimited amounts on “independent expenditures,” e.g., TV ads and mailers.
In the first election after Citizens United, outside spending nationally increased 346 percent over the previous midterms.
Last year, more Super PAC money was spent in Hawaii than in any election cycle in state history: $10.3 million on ballot initiatives and $5.3 million on candidates.
Only an amendment can change it
The president and Congress can do nothing about Citizens United, directly. The only way to change it is by amending the U.S. Constitution.
The process is to build support nationally for an amendment by passing state, county and city resolutions. They pressure members of Congress to introduce a federal resolution for a constitutional amendment.
Once that passes both the Senate and House by two-thirds, three-fourths of the states must ratify it. And then the Constitution will be amended, just as its framers designed it to be.
If this sounds unlikely and extreme, consider that the women’s suffrage movement created the 19th amendment 45 years after a Supreme Court decision ruled that the U.S. Constitution gave women no right to vote. In hindsight, women voting doesn’t seem particularly extreme.
Time for an update
Today, corporations and money play far greater roles in politics than in 1787. The Constitution badly needs an update to clarify what corporations and money are and are not.
Corporations are not people, and the Constitution needs to say so. They are artificial legal entities that have accumulated constitutional rights over many decades through inconsistent application of case law. For example, they can sue your county if they don’t like the laws you pass. In Vermont, Monsanto is suing the entire state.
Money is not speech, and the Constitution needs to say so. Proponents of Citizens United argue that it protects free speech by allowing anyone to speak without limitation. But imagine five people in a room trying to converse and one has a microphone that no one else can afford. That, in effect, is what Citizens United has allowed.
Support is broad and growing
Sixteen states — Hawaii was first — and 664 cities and counties have passed such resolutions, including the city and county of Honolulu, and Hawaii County. The time is ripe for the Kauai and Maui County Councils to pass their own. That will contribute, in the spirit of actual free speech, to the movement to pass an amendment.
The Kauai County Council debated their resolution on June 10. The entire council supported it, but disagreement on two provisos and the desire for unanimity deferred a vote until June 24.
While unanimous agreement would be nice, it’s more important to include language noting that for-profit corporations are legally required to put profit before all other interests. This is a key reason why the 28th amendment is needed.
What you can do
We urge the Kauai Council to keep language that explains why so many corporations exploit Citizens United for their self-interest. But most important is to pass the resolution, even in a compromised form. It will hasten the day when corporations stop buying elections on Maui, in Hawaii, and across America. We urge readers to attend Wednesday’s meeting or send testimony, and to write their members of Congress to get money out of politics by amending the U.S. Constitution. We’ve amended it before to create a more just and free society. It’s time to do it again.
Brodie Lockard is a Board member for Common Cause Hawaii, and a Hawaii organizer for Public Citizen.