In January, the Amherst-based nonprofit Free Speech for People launched a petition drive on a White House website urging President Barack Obama to use his State of the Union address to call for a Constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission.
The request did not seem so unreasonable. After all, in his 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama famously criticized the court for the ten-week-old ruling, which lifted certain restrictions on political contributions by corporations and labor unions, paving the way for unprecedented election spending. In that address, Obama urged a bipartisan effort “to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”
Free Speech for People—whose executive director, Amherst attorney John Bonifaz, is a longtime voting rights activist—was founded shortly after the court ruling to fight against the effects of the decision, including by pushing ahead an amendment effort. The group helped draft the “People’s Rights Amendment,” filed by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, whose 2nd Congressional District includes much of the Valley.
The bill, filed in January, asserts that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution apply to “natural person,” not corporations. McGovern also filed a second bill that would affirm the federal and state governments’ power to regulate political spending. A number of other legislators have also filed bills that would overturn the Citizens United decision. (See “Bucking Citizens United,” January 29, 2013, www.valley advocate.com.)
With momentum building behind those efforts, activists hoped the president would again signal his support of an amendment during his State of the Union address. FSFP’s online petition—posted on “We the People,” a White House website where citizens are invited to “petition the Obama administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country”—read, in part, “Our democracy is broken, flooded by money from corporations, billionaires and SuperPacs that puts their interests over those of the public. From big banks sinking our economy while blocking real reform to the NRA preventing sensible gun safety measures, big money forces are corrupting our politics.” It received more than 39,000 signatures.
Obama did not even mention Citizens United in his 2013 State of the Union speech. But late last month, amendment supporters did receive a somewhat promising response from the White House: “President Obama agrees with you” on the important of “fighting the influence of money in politics,” read the administrations’ response to the “We the People” petition.
The response noted earlier comments Obama has made in support of an amendment overturning Citizens United. While amending the Constitution is hard, it went on, “That’s where you come in. If this is a fight that motivates you, you need to work for it. Keep making your voice heard and encourage others to take a stand against limitless corporate spending in our elections. And speak out in favor of changes that will reduce the influence of special interests.”
The White House statement also touted Obama’s efforts to “lead by example, and change Washington from the ground up,” noting several restrictions the president has placed on lobbying within his administration.
While supporters of the proposed amendments are “happy to hear the President affirm his support,” Bonifaz said in a statement, he needs to do more. “[N]ow it’s time for him to step up and press Congress to act,” he said.
Bonifaz also noted the contradictions between Obama’s response to the petition and the recent reconfiguring of his campaign organization into a lobbying group called “Organizing for America.” That organization —like Citizens United, the conservative group at the heart of the Supreme Court case—is a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation that will accept donations from both individuals and corporations.
“All the big money wrapped up in Organizing for American is a reminder of why we need to act now to seriously address this problem with an amendment,” Bonifaz said. “More and more states are signaling that they would ratify an amendment to reclaim our democracy if Congress sent one to them. This is the time for presidential leadership to help make it happen.”