The "corporations are not people" train makes another stop in Vermont this week.
Last Tuesday, on Town Meeting Day, 60 Vermont towns passed resolutions calling on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to repeal Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that spawned super PACs and gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as flesh-and-blood humans.
This week, David Cobb, spokesperson of Move To Amend.org, will make two appearances in Vermont to build support for the campaign. A Texas-born lawyer, Cobb is best known for running for president on the Green Party ticket in 2004, after Ralph Nader opted to run as an independent. But he has since turned his sights to what might be an even loftier goal: passing the first major constitutional amendment in more than 40 years.
Cobb says it will take a while, but it can be done. He'll explain how this Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m. at the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield, and on Thursday, March 15, at 7 p.m. in Ira Allen Chapel at the University of Vermont. Admission is free and doors open at 6 p.m. for free Ben & Jerry's.
Seven Days caught up with Cobb by phone yesterday.
SEVEN DAYS: Not to spoil the surprise, but what will you be talking about on your swing through Vermont?
DAVID COBB: First, to help celebrate the real victory in the town hall meetings. That's the first step but let's take steps two, three, four to amend the U.S. Constitution to abolish corporate personhood and establish that money is not speech.
SD: How exactly do we do that? For a lot of folks, this goes back to sixth grade civics.
DC: The constitution makes it clear that there's only one way to ratify a constitutional amendment, but two ways to propose it. The proposal can come from either two-thirds of congress or two-thirds of the states, and a ratification requires three-quarters of the states. So we need to build the momentum for a proposal to come out of either two-thirds of Congress or two-thirds of the states before the ratification process.
SD: Which is more likely to happen — the Congress or the states?
DC: It's worth saying this, this amendment is not coming out of the current congress, nor is it coming out of the current [state] legislatures. It's going to require really a broad-based, deep, committed movement in order to effectuate either of those routes.
SD: What's the significance of the Vermont town meeting votes in the bigger picture? Obviously, we have a pretty high opinion of ourselves and the importance of these meetings. But in the context of this national movement, why do they matter?
DC: It is huge. And I will say that Vermont's town meeting is a big deal not just in Vermont. We in Texas and California and other places look to Vermont — and really with a jealous eye — because of the ability for ordinary folks to come together to engage in political debate, discourse and discussion. It's part of the reason that Vermont is such a politically independent place — because this has been cultured over time. It's not in the genes of Vermont, it's because of the social institutions that Vermonters have created and enjoy. I think it's significant because in a very short amount of time, a large number of people got active and involved in this campaign. You know, I've been working for social change for 25 years. I've never been part of anything that was so broad, that was so systemic and so deep and has grown so fast.
SD: Could the effects of Citizens United be fixed through legislation, or is a constitutional amendment the only way?
DC: The effects of Citizens United can be greatly ameliorated by legislation but it can only be fixed by amendment. Why? Because it can be fixed by better disclosure laws, by certain tinkering at the margins. But remember that the court overruled legislation. That's what Citizens United did. It overruled the McCain-Feingold law. And McCain-Feingold was a very weak and anemic campaign finance law to begin with. Remember that with McCain-Feingold in place, over $5 billion had been spent in the 2008 election cycle and the court said that the workings of McCain-Feingold treated certain groups of people — and that is to say, the wealthy — like an "oppressed minority."
SD: How long will it take to get this amendment passed?
DC: A decade. I really believe that if we do our work at the local level and we move from the local to the state, and the state to the federal, and if you look at how long other movements have taken to be successful, I think that we can actually amend the constitution within a decade. And that means the steps along the way will be fundamental changes as well. And we're already seeing the issue of corporate personhood become a political issue in a very short period of time. Remember that before Vermont, voters have already passed similar resolutions in Madison, Wis., Missoula, Mont., Boulder, Colo., it's already on the ballot in a suburb of Milwaukee. That's actually just the process to get resolutions before voters. In that, we've run and won over 70 campaigns to get city council members to take positions. When I say that we're getting larger, stronger and better organized, it's not rhetoric.
SD: Any plans to run for office in the future — maybe for president again?
DC: Honestly, I would say this. I'm definitely not going to be doing so in the next election cycle or two because I think that the issue of corporate personhood and Move to Amend cuts across political ideologies and across party affiliations. And I honestly feel better about the work I am doing as an engaged citizen working on Move to Amend than any other thing that makes sense to me. So the short answer is no.
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