End Citizens United

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reaffirmed money as speech and corporations as people. In overturning more than a century of precedent, the court stipulated that no limits could be placed on the political spending of corporations or their billionaire sponsors.  This decision opened the floodgates of corporate money into our political system and paved the way for a head-long rush towards a government by, for, and of the corporations and the super rich.








What is Citizens United?

Hillary: The Movie

during the 2008 election, a conservative non-profit organization named “Citizens United” produced a film entitled, Hillary: The Movie. This thinly veiled political ad masquerading as a “documentary” was deeply critical of then Senator Clinton.

Because of the political nature of the movie, and the fact that Citizens United intended to purchase airtime on cable television, the movie was deemed an “electioneering communication” by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). As such, it was subject to the rules governing the production of political ads. These rules include limitations on who may fund them. Citizens United sued in federal court to overturn the decision, which finally ended up before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held two hearings on the case. Much to everyone’s surprise, its 2010 ruling ultimately went far beyond what the plaintiffs had sought. In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld that money is speech and corporations are people and entitled to the protection of their first amendment rights. This decision meant that corporations, unions and the super rich were free to spend as much as they like to promote or defeat political candidates. The laws that previously barred those interests from contributing directly to candidates (and at least attempted to curb corruption) remain in place. However, this ruling trumps those state, local, and federal laws, effectively lifting the controls on political giving that had been in place for decades.


Why does it matter?

Money As Speech

Cartoon: Kip Lyall

Even when we had a system with some limits on political donations, corporations already wielded tremendous influence. With billions of dollars at their disposal to spend on campaign contributions and lobbying every year, it’s no wonder our policies reflect their interests.

As just a small example, in 2009, the health care industry spent more than $263 million dollars on lobbyists. What do you imagine that amount bought them? Would you spend that kind of money if it didn’t buy you anything?

In 1907, Congress passed the Tillman Act, which placed limits on corporate donations in an effort to try and shield our democracy from just that kind of disproportionate influence.

With Citizens United, the Supreme Court established that any limitation on contributions from corporations or their billionaire sponsors, is unconstitutional. This decision cleared the way for corporations and unions to become the principal source of money for any candidate, both undoing over a hundred years of precedent and drowning out the voices of hundreds of millions of citizens in the public square. Now, corporations and the super rich can spend unlimited amounts of money in every federal, state, and local election in the country.

Imagine the consequences… any legislation dealing with say, climate change, or skyrocketing health care costs, will only be possible if it somehow benefits the huge corporations or ultra wealthy billionaires that are bankrolling elections. If history is any guide, that will mean never; effective legislation combating climate change will never be passed, and comprehensive health care reform will continue to be elusive. More often than not, legislation supporting the public interest also mean less profit for the elite. In this new, post-Citizens United world: they win, and we lose, every time.  Companies will continue to oppose these and other populist measures in favor of legislation addressing their specific corporate interests. In other words, if it doesn’t make them more money, it doesn’t happen.

This ruling challenges the very premise of American government. Can a government based on the will of equal, sovereign human beings co-exist with a government based on unregulated corporate spending? Unlikely.


What will it change?

Show Me The Unlimited Money

In 2008, the largest 100 corporations had combined revenues of $13.1 trillion and profits of $605 billion. According to opensecrets.org, total spending on federal campaigns in 2008 was about $5.3 billion. Diversion of just 2% of corporate profits into that election cycle would have represented more than 2Xs the amount of money that was actually spent. That kind of money would utterly dominate elections and policy-making.

In November 2010, during the first election held after Citizens Unitedhundreds of millions of dollars flowed into campaigns across the country. Politicians who had failed to tow the corporate line, whether on health care, energy, or financial reform, were bombarded with negative ads. The Citizens United ruling also effectively removed any requirements that the source of these ads be disclosed.

The 2012 election already looks to be much worse.


What will it mean?

A Vision Of The Future

The long campaign to expand the “rights” of corporations has had effects we can see all around us already: Corporate-friendly trade and tax policies have moved jobs overseas, destroyed our manufacturing capacity, produced vast wage and income inequality, and gutted local economies and communities.

The idea that a corporation — like any other “person”— has a right to “free speech” is not new. Corporations have already been exercising this “right” for sometime, byspending money on lobbying and campaigns and vetoing public interest laws. What is new, however, is that Citizens United not only expands this “right” – it sends it spiraling out of control.

With Citizens United, corporations and the super rich now have totally unfettered and direct access to our political system.

Why just influence democracy, when you can buy it?

Energy policy set entirely by oil and coal companies.

Environmental policy set entirely by logging and chemical companies.

Healthcare policy set entirely by insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Defense policy set entirely by private contractors and arms companies.

Economic policy set entirely by Wall Street banks and financial companies.

Agricultural policy set entirely by biotech and pesticide companies.

Foreign policy set entirely by overseas governments and offshore companies.

Congress, The Supreme Court and The President of The United States-

All handpicked by ultra wealthy billionaires. 

This is the future with Citizens United.

As corporations transition into blatantly buying politicians and legislation, passing or striking down laws that protect people at the expense of corporate profits, Americans (unsurprisingly) become more cynical about their government. This pessimism leads to an even greater lack of participation in whatever is left of our “democratic” process. Because, really, “what difference does it make?” The sad truth is, under Citizens United,  the cynics are right.


What can we do?

Amend The Constitution

Our laws and public policy, indeed our very future, should be determined by people and the public interest, not by Wall Street banks and global corporations.

Citizens United says that corporations have the same rights as people to free speech, including political speech. These rights allow corporate entities to spend unlimited amounts influencing elections and lawmaking — And they are doing it!

“One person, one vote” has become, “One dollar, one vote”.

But can’t Congress just overturn Citizens United by law?

No. When the Supreme Court declares a law unconstitutional, as they did in Citizens United, that takes precedence over any law or act of Congress.

Congress could try to repair the damage within the scope of the ruling- one guess as to which side the lobbyists will be on. But, so long as corporations are “people”, they will have the “right” to “free speech”. In the meantime, campaigns, elections and laws are for sale to the highest bidder.

Only an amendment to the Constitution can serve as “the final word”.

But, can’t states take action to limit corporate influence?

No. The Supreme Court recently ruled on this very issue and ruled that the provisions detailed in Citizens United trump any state law to the contrary.

Previously, states could amend their constitutions or pass laws to prevent undue influence by wealthy donors and ban or restrict political speech by corporations. Many states have had campaign finance laws limiting corporate political spending in place for decades. (Montana has had such laws for over a century!) However, none of that matters now. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear the state of Montana’s challenge to Citizens United, asserting that no state constitutional clause or law could be used to curtail the “right” of “free speech” for corporations. Therefore, states are prohibited from limiting the amount of money corporations and the wealthy elite can inject into politics .

Without a Constitutional amendment, Citizens United is the law of the land.

But, can we really amend the Constitution?

Yes!  In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18, was adopted by 3/4ths of the states within only four months!

Support for this amendment was fueled by popular uprising in response to the Vietnam War era’s draft- “If I’m old enough to be drafted, I’m old enough to vote!“- people stood up and demanded change. We too can stand up to corporate power and the disproportionate influence of the wealthy!

Our own history is pointing the way. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party was a response to undue corporate influence on our government and public policy. Our nation’s founding began when the American colonies rose up against a corporate monopoly. That act of rebellion led to the American Revolution, the Constitution, and the United States of America that we have today. And, our founders were smart; they gave us the tools to prevent us from having to overthrow our entire way of life in order to take back our government for the people and protect our democracy.

Isn’t is about time we used them?

Money is the new tea.

Now, two centuries later, we have global corporations and billionaires using their wealth to overthrow our democracy. It’s time to reclaim the vision and promises of our nation’s founding.

We must protect our democracy.

We Must Amend The Constitution.


What can I do to help?

Get Involved

Move To Amend (movetoamend.org) and similar groups around the country are already organizing, building grassroots and coalition support nationwide to end Citizens United through amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This kind of broad national grassroots support is the most crucial part of any movement to amend the Constitution.

These potential amendments seek to clarify that only natural persons- not corporations- have the right to free political speech. They would further seek to limit or prohibit the use of corporate funds for influencing elections or electioneering.

In other words, get the money out of politics and the democracy back into the hand of the people, where it belongs.

Please contact any of these groups and ask what you can do to help!


Key Points.

One Person, One Vote

 Corporations are not people.

 Billionaires are not kings.

 Money is not speech.

 Protect our democracy.

 Amend the Constitution.

 End Citizens United.


Federal Campaign Finance Regulation

A Brief History

Money In Politics And Campaign Finance End Citizens Untied Congress Washington Illustration

Back in the 20th Century:

1907 - The Tillman Act prohibited monetary contribution to national political campaigns by corporations.

1947 - First prohibition on corporate contributions to election campaigns or electioneering communications.

1972 - The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) required candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and campaign expenditures. An amendment in 1974 placed statutory limits on contributions and created the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

BCRA Law (McCain-Feingold, 2002) provisions:

  • Corporations and unions are prohibited from directly contributing to candidates using general treasury funds. They may, however, establish a “separate segregated fund”, generally referred to as a Political Action Committee or PAC, for this purpose. Moneys received by PACs are limited to donations from corporate stockholders and employees or, in the case of unions, members of the union.
  • Independent expenditures that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate through any form of media are also prohibited.
  • BCRA Sec.203, as amended, further prohibits any “electioneering communication”, defined as broadcast, cable or satellite communication that “refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office”, made within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Citizens United ruling (February, 2010):


  • Laws or rules that prohibit corporations and unions from spending treasury money on ads that advocate electing or defeating candidates for president or Congress but are produced independently and not coordinated with the candidate’s campaign.
  • The prohibition in BCRA that prohibits issue-oriented advertisements paid for by corporations or unions from being aired 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.


  • The ban on donations by corporations from their treasuries directly to candidates.
  • The ability of corporations, unions or individuals to set up PACs that can contribute directly to candidates but can only accept voluntary contributions from employees, members and others and cannot use money directly from corporate or union treasuries.
  • The McCain-Feingold provision that anyone spending money on political ads must disclose the names of contributors.

 Congressional response to Citizens United:

The plan has six key components:

  1. Foreign influence would be deterred by banning corporations which have 20% foreign ownership, a foreign-majority board of directors or U.S. operations (or political decision making) under the direction or control of a foreign entity, including a foreign government, from doing the independent expenditure ads permitted under Citizens United.
  2. “Pay-to-Play” restrictions would extend the existing ban on political contributions by government contractors to include these independent expenditures and bar TARP recipients from using taxpayer money for political expenditures.
  3. “Stand By Your Ad” requirements would be extended to require a corporation’s CEO to appear on camera to say that he or she “approves this message,” just like candidates do now. For “shadow” groups or coalitions, the top contributor would do the disclaimer and names of the top five contributors would be listed in the ad.
  4. Additional disclosure requirements would make clear who is funding these activities, both in filings with the FEC and to corporate shareholders. (Disclosure should occur within 24 hours of each such expenditure and be compiled quarterly). Also, registered lobbyists would have enhanced disclosure requirements.
  5. Equal access to media for candidates would be ensured by requiring broadcasters to extend the lowest unit rate to candidates and parties whenever corporations place independent expenditure ads with them.
  6. Restrictions that ban coordination between a corporation or union and the candidate on ads referencing a Congressional candidate would be extended to within 90 days of the primary and through the general election. Coordination on ads which explicitly promote, support, attack or oppose a candidate would be banned even earlier than 90 days before the primary election.

Brennan Center proposals (summary):

  • Promote public funding of political campaigns
  • Modernize voter registration
  • Demand accountability
  • Advance a voter-centric view of the First Amendment


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