Occupy Democracy Pasadena seeks support on constitutional amendment from an undecided Schiff
As a US Supreme Court justice once famously remarked in a case about the First Amendment, the best cure for bad speech is more speech.
By the same token, a group of congressional leaders believe the best cure for a bad Supreme Court ruling — namely the controversial decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission two years ago, which gives corporations and unions the same unlimited campaign contribution capabilities as individual citizens — is enacting more laws. Specifically, these laws would amend the US Constitution to formally declare that: “the rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, or other private entities established for business purposes or to promote business interests under the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state,” according to the text of House Joint Resolution 90 (HJR 90).
Also dubbed the OCCUPIED Amendment (an acronym for Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy), HJR 90 was introduced in mid-November by Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida. So far, Deutch’s bill has found allies among 39 of his Democratic colleagues, including Reps. Judy Chu, D-El Monte, and Barbara Lee of Oakland. In December, the House Committee on the Judiciary referred Deutch’s bill to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, where it is currently being considered.
Disconcerting to members of Occupy Democracy–Pasadena, however, is the absence of support from the area’s other Democrat in Congress, Adam Schiff, who regularly votes in concert with Deutch and Chu but is breaking with tradition on HJR 90.
For that reason, members of Occupy Democracy–Pasadena and its supporters on Monday presented Schiff with 750 signed petitions urging him to support the OCCUPIED Amendment. On Tuesday, members of the group picketed outside of Schiff’s field office on North Raymond Avenue in Old Pasadena in efforts to get the Blue Dog Democrat on board in supporting the bill. But, for the moment, that doesn’t seem likely.
Though sympathetic with the desire for election campaign financing reform, Schiff is loath to change the Constitution to achieve that goal.
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United was a tragic misreading of the Constitution and a complete disaster for our political process,” Schiff told the Weekly. “Since the decision, anonymous donors have polluted the electoral system with millions of dollars in undisclosed spending.”
In hopes of correcting that situation, Schiff said last week he reintroduced the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, which he hopes will bring some much-needed transparency and public disclosure to the campaign financing process.
Among other things, the bill bans US corporations controlled by foreign governments from influencing elections with campaign contributions. It also gives the public access to information regarding corporate campaign spending and forces organizations to admit their part in political advertising.
Patrick Briggs, his wife Maddie Gavel-Briggs and other members of Occupy Democracy-Pasadena met with Schiff Monday in his office. Members of the group tried to convince the congressman to co-sponsor HJR 90. But Schiff countered that he was reluctant to co-sponsor legislation to amend the Constitution, which he believes should be done only as a last resort.
“I have opposed constitutional amendments on a range of subjects over the years but will be giving this one serious consideration,” said Schiff, a former federal prosecutor. “I'm also exploring changes to the state laws of incorporation to address the horrendous impact of Citizens United and to make our electoral system more open, fair and transparent.”
Despite Schiff’s reluctance to support the amendment, Briggs said the meeting went well.
“It was a good meeting. This amendment is fundamental to returning our democracy to what it used to be when it was accountable to the people,” Briggs told the Weekly. “If corporate money is going to run our government, why bother voting?”
But the legislation, if approved in its present form, may have unforeseen consequences. According to UCLA law Professor Eugene Volokh, HJR 90 could pose serious challenges to the First Amendment by banning media from endorsing candidates and ballot measures.
“Nearly all newspapers, TV stations, cable networks and radio stations [except of course for nonprofits such as NPR] are organized as corporations or other entities established for business purposes,” Volokh wrote on his Web site, the Volokh Conspiracy. “Under Section 3, they ‘shall be prohibited’ from making expenditures ‘in any election of any candidate … or the vote upon any ballot measure.’ Since to write or print or broadcast anything, newspapers, networks, and broadcasters must spend money, this would ban — not just authorize Congress to ban, but itself ban — editorials supporting or opposing a candidate or a ballot measure.”
Section 3 of the bill states: “Such corporate and other private entities shall be prohibited from making contributions or expenditures in any election of any candidate for public office or the vote upon any ballot measure submitted to the people.”
Briggs said he was not up to speed on those potential consequences mentioned by Volokh but was sure that the issue could be resolved. Former corporate attorney Peter Thottam, who organized this year’s Occupy the Rose Parade event, which attracted attention by untold numbers of people to the Occupy movement with its peaceful though unwelcome association with the Rose Parade, said limiting corporate influence on the political process is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy.
“It is essential we establish that corporations are not people,” Thottam said. “Right now, money drives the political process, and in 90 percent of the candidates who run for congressional and statewide offices, the candidate who has the most money wins. It’s part of the problem. Corporations run the country 1,000 percent. It is Wall Street. It is not a government of the people. It is the government of the banks and the lobbyists. There are 3,000 financial industry lobbyists, and a lot of them make a half a million dollars. That’s why politicians end up as puppets. The corporations drive everything.”
In December, Independent US Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced a companion bill to HJR 90 in the Senate. Senate Joint Resolution 33, the Saving American Democracy Amendment, “makes clear that free speech and other constitutionally protected rights are those of natural persons and not corporations or entities formed to promote their business interests,” according to the Web site theoccupiedamendment.com.
Sanders’ legislation aims to end unlimited political spending by corporations, and “reaffirms that corporations are formed in accordance with laws written by the people and are thus subject to laws enacted to protect the environment, ensure public health, and other safeguards for the people.”
The Sanders bill further allows Congress to “crack down” on spending by third-party groups and authorizes Congress to set “caps, limits, and disclosure requirements on all forms of political expenditures and contributions.”
In an email, Briggs noted that Deutch’s bill has the support of the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Church. In a letter to Schiff dated Monday, Bacon praised the congressman’s leadership skills and urged him to support the proposed legislation.
“In my sermon of Jan. 22, 2012, at All Saints Church, Pasadena, I joined in the call for a constitutional amendment to ensure that Citizens United is reversed and that the notion of corporate personhood cannot be constitutionally protected,” Bacon wrote. “I would appreciate your doing everything in your power to support such a constitutional amendment along with any other measures that would in the meantime counter the deleterious effects of Citizens United on our electoral process.”
In the email, Briggs reported that Schiff promised to continue researching the issue and consider co-signing. “He did say that in 11 years of being in Congress, he has never supported an amendment to the US Constitution and is hesitant to do so now,” Briggs wrote. “He also said, however, that the damage that ‘Citizens United’ has done to our democracy warrants him taking more of a look and to at least consider our request that he co-sponsor House Joint Resolution 90.”