This past fall, Amazon challenged the proudly progressive character of my home city, Seattle, pouring $1.5 million into its City Council elections.
In doing so, Amazon placed not just a thumb but also a fistful of cash on the scales of our democracy. Thanks to immediate organizing on the ground and the speaking out of elected officials, the cynical and last-minute corporate spending on elections backfired: Nearly all of the Amazon-backed candidates lost their races.
However, on this 10th anniversary of the US Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that catalyzed our current era of super PACs and corporate power, the clear danger posed by money in politics is real. Citizens United vastly expanded the rights of corporate entities and the super-wealthy to spend or invest their money to influence political elections and deepened the corrupting electoral influence of big money.
In the 10 years since Citizens United, we’ve seen newly created super PACs and “dark money” political nonprofits spend staggering sums, taking in unlimited donations without having to disclose them. While they cannot coordinate their spending with specific candidate campaigns, they can spend on political attack ads and other forms of political influence. From 2010 to 2018, super PACs spent roughly $2.9 billion on federal elections while dark-money spending rose from $129 million in the period from 2000 to 2008 to $964 million from 2010 to 2018.
It is important to note that Citizens United was not the first time political money in elections has been equated with “free speech” and corporations have been equated with people with constitutionally protected rights. The claim that corporate entities are legal persons with constitutional “rights” has been around for over a century.
But corporate constitutional rights extend beyond First Amendment free speech rights. Corporate constitutional rights began in the 1880s when Supreme Court Justices hijacked the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment—intended to guarantee equal protections for black Americans—claiming the rights of people also applied to corporate entities. Courts also interpreted sections of the original Constitution to protect corporate “rights” over those of people and communities, even though corporate entities are not mentioned anywhere in our Constitution.
The collective consequences of this have been devastating.
The corporate First Amendment “right not to speak” means that consumers may end up knowing less about what’s in the food they eat. The corporate First Amendment religious “right” granted in the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision gives a for-profit corporation the right to deny reproductive health care coverage based on religious belief.
The corporate Fourth Amendment search and seizure “rights” prevents warrantless inspections of many businesses to ensure safe working and environmental protections.
The corporate Fifth Amendment takings “rights” defines certain corporate regulations that protect private land as a “taking,” with the corporation being justly compensated for lost current and/or future profits.
Therefore, any full remedy to the questions of money into elections must address not only the immediate effects of Citizens United but also the entirety of corporate constitutional rights.
That is why in 2019, I introduced House Resolution 48, the We the People Amendment calling for ending all corporate constitutional rights—as well as political money as free speech.
The flood of money into elections following Citizens United and other court decisions has eroded public trust in our elected leaders to seriously address issues like health care, climate change, wealth inequality, guns, and infrastructure. Only by ending all of these corporate constitutional rights and the corrupting influence of political money as “free speech” can we have a government that represents all of us rather than only the interests of the super-wealthy.
The We the People Amendment (HJR 48), co-sponsored by 67 of my House colleagues, enjoys widespread support with the American public. The national group Move to Amend has been educating and organizing citizens across the country, building an authentic, grassroots movement seeking a systemic solution to address the harms of Citizens United.
The American people urgently want us to return our government back to the people instead of the highest bidders. It’s up to all of us to make that happen.