Albert J. Marro / Staff File Photo ¬ A small group of protesters gathers in front of the federal building in Rutland in January to protest the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
An unprecedented coalition of almost a dozen advocacy groups worked months to persuade nearly 70 Vermont communities to review and ratify an advisory town meeting article supporting a constitutional amendment for federal campaign spending limits.
Now comes the hard part.
State supporters of political funding reform face a challenge as big as the country to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision — Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission — that said corporations share the same First Amendment rights as individuals to donate freely to causes.
Article V of the Constitution permits the proposal of amendments — but only by a two-thirds majority vote of both chambers of Congress or a convention called for by two-thirds of the nation’s state legislatures, followed in either case by affirmation from three-fourths (or 38) of the 50 states.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., could try to regulate corporate political spending by requiring more public disclosure of who’s contributing how much. Instead, he’s trading duct tape for dynamite: a “Saving American Democracy” constitutional amendment to overturn the 5-4 court ruling and restore the power of Congress and state lawmakers to enact funding limits.
Sanders, who calls the 2010 Citizens United decision one of the worst Supreme Court judgments ever, hopes last week’s Vermont votes are the start of a larger groundswell.
“Corporations and billionaires should not be allowed to buy candidates and elections with unlimited, undisclosed spending on political campaigns,” Sanders says. “I hope the message coming out of the town meetings in Vermont will spark a grass-roots movement all across the United States that a constitutional amendment is needed to overturn the ruling.”
Sanders’ website features a petition with more than 200,000 signatures and a national map pinpointing several dozen other local and state efforts. But winning countrywide consensus won’t be easy. Consider the campaign for a national women’s Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1923, passed by Congress in 1972 and back to square one after hitting a 1982 ratification deadline with only 35 of the 38 required states.
In Vermont, local leaders in more than a dozen cities and towns rejected requests to debate the political funding issue at town meetings, deeming it outside municipal jurisdiction. Ethan Allen Institute founder John McClaughry dismissed the “wretched idea” in a national Associated Press story. And state Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, D-Williston, has yet to win support for her state legislative resolution opposing such spending.
“It is a heavy lift, there’s no question about it,” Lyons says of the overall challenge. “But that U.S. Supreme Court decision was like a bomb exploding and we need to fix it. Regardless of the fact it may take a long time, I think this was so disastrous, it has lit a fire that isn’t going to easily die.”
The national advocacy group Public Citizen is coordinating supporters from almost a dozen organizations under the umbrella “Vermonters Say Corporations Are Not People,” including the national Common Cause and Move to Amend campaigns, Occupy Vermont, the state’s Peace and Justice Center and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Advocates persuaded 64 Green Mountain communities to approve an advisory article that urged state and federal officials to promote a constitutional amendment that “provides that money is not speech, and that corporations are not persons under the U.S. Constitution.”
As a result of the Vermont votes, Public Citizen is launching a “Resolutions Week” campaign, with more than 500 activists working to pass similar pro-amendment statements in 300 U.S. cities and towns by the second week of June.
“Super Tuesday showed us that momentum is growing rapidly for a constitutional amendment,” says Aquene Freechild, a senior organizer for Public Citizen. “Voters are attuned to the corrosive effects of money and politics, as well as corporate power in our democracy, and they are demanding it end. We expect similar demonstrations of support throughout the country in the coming months.”
Lyons, for her part, will push the state Senate Government Operations Committee to forward her resolution to the rest of the Legislature. She’ll also welcome Move to Amend campaign leader David Cobb to the Statehouse this week.
“I’m very encouraged that all three members of our congressional delegation are supportive and will get the conversation going at their level,” Lyons adds.
The town meeting advisory article won approval in Albany, Barnet, Bolton, Brandon, Brattleboro, Bristol, Burlington, Calais, Charlotte, Chester, Chittenden, Craftsbury, East Montpelier, Fayston, Fletcher, Granville, Greensboro, Hardwick, Hartland, Hinesburg, Huntington, Jericho, Lincoln, Marlboro, Marshfield, Middletown Springs, Monkton, Montgomery, Montpelier, Moretown, Mount Holly, Newfane, Norwich, Peru, Plainfield, Putney, Randolph, Richmond, Ripton, Rochester, Roxbury, Rutland City, Rutland Town, Sharon, Shelburne, Shrewsbury, South Burlington, Starksboro, Sudbury, Thetford, Tunbridge, Underhill, Waitsfield, Walden, Waltham, Warren, West Haven, Williamstown, Williston, Windsor, Winooski, Woodbury, Woodstock and Worcester.
At least two municipalities voted against the resolution. Mendon said no in part because town meeting attendees didn’t consider the issue a local one, while Pittsfield rejected it after one speaker worried the measure would inhibit not only corporations that fund “super PAC” political action committees but also workers’ unions and liberal voices such as billionaire George Soros.
Individual town vote totals are available at www.citizen.org/Towns.
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