SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Vermont Says ‘No’ to Citizens United

March 10, 2011
Senator Bernie Sanders

Last Saturday, I held a town meeting in Montpelier, Vt., to discuss the disastrous Supreme Court ruling of last year which upended our democracy by unleashing a tsunami of corporate spending in our elections. The Citizens United ruling has radically changed our democracy -- further tilting the balance of power toward corporate America.

Under the guise of the First Amendment, which protects free speech, the Citizens United decision allows billionaires, powerful corporations and their executives to put unlimited sums of money into campaigns without even having to be identified. What it essentially says is corporations and billionaires can sit in a room and decide who is going to become the president of the United States, a U.S. senator, a congressperson, or governor. That is not what this country is supposed to be about.

Citizens at Town Meeting in Montpelier, VT on March 5, 2011

Five hundred people packed into a high school auditorium in central Vermont on Saturday afternoon to hear from an expert panel, including: nationally-syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann, Vermont State Sen. Ginny Lyons, Vermont Law School’s constitutional law expert, Prof. Cheryl Hanna, and Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were special guests.

The huge turnout for this meeting tells me the interest in this issue is extremely high and Vermonters are worried about the impact of Citizens United on the future of our democracy.

If we are going to be successful in addressing Citizens United -- and its disastrous implications for our democracy -- there are at least three approaches that we have to take.

First, by passing legislation like the like the DISCLOSE Act, offered by Sen. Schumer, we would create new requirements which reduce the impact of Citizens United. The DISCLOSE Act would a) force corporations that spend money on campaign ads to clearly identify themselves and make the company’s CEO appear on camera to take responsibility for the ad’s contents; b) enhance financial disclosure information so the public knows where the funding is coming from; c) prevent corporations owned by foreign countries from utilizing Citizens United to influence American politics; d) enable candidates who are negatively impacted by Citizens United funding to acquire ad time at the lowest rates possible. Last year, the Republicans blocked this bill with a filibuster – showing, once again, the Republican attachment to big-money interests.

Even if the DISLCOSE Act were to pass, however, we would still be left with a broken campaign finance system, a system where the wealthy are given a louder voice in our democracy than everyone else. To create a real fix, we need to develop a system for public funding of elections. The Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored by Sen. Durbin, moves us toward a level playing field, limits the power of big money in our elections, and would be an extremely important step forward in creating fair elections.

Thirdly, I think constitutional amendments should be used carefully and sparingly. The Constitution has served us well for more than 200 years. But when the Supreme Court says corporations – whose sole reason to exist is to make money – are “people,” that spending unlimited sums of money in political campaigns is “free speech,” and that attempts to impose reasonable restrictions on campaign ads is unconstitutional, something more needs to be done. I intend to work with other members of Congress and interested organizations to develop a strategy for writing a constitutional amendment which makes it very clear that corporations are not people.

Last weekend’s town meeting brought forth some important and cogent remarks from panelists and the members of the audience who participated in the question and answer session.

Nationally-syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann, the author of “Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became ‘People’ – And How You Can Fight Back,” gave the keynote address. In his remarks, Hartmann shared the history of how corporations gradually achieved “personhood” in the United States. He told the audience, “We need to strip corporations of the power they have in this county because it’s killing us.”

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield joined me on the panel, as well. They summed up the absurdity of the Citizens United ruling in this exchange. “I’m Ben, I’m a person. I’m Jerry, I’m a person. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Not a person.”

Warning that big money is just beginning to flow and that hundreds of millions of dollars from corporate America and wealthy individuals flooded the political landscape during the mid-term elections last year, Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, said, “Everyone agrees that 2010 was practice for what’s coming in 2012.”

Weissman expects that in 50 years the Citizens United ruling will be one of a handful of infamous Supreme Court cases that confounds historians along the lines of Bush v. Gore and Plessy v. Ferguson. Public Citizen is helping lead the effort to educate and mobilize people about the fundamental change this ruling makes to our democracy.

Vermont is helping lead the way. Vermont State Sen. Ginny Lyons offered a resolution in the state Legislature calling upon Congress to advance a constitutional amendment which would state unequivocally that corporations are not people. “I believe a constitutional amendment is necessary at this time to undo the ambiguity by the courts,” she said.

Cheryl Hanna, a constitutional law professor from Vermont Law School, said the Supreme Court risks losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public if it continues to give corporations more and more rights and power.

I hope the town meeting I held in Vermont on Citizens United will be replicated throughout the country.  This is an enormously important issue, and how it is resolved will determine, to a significant degree, the future of American democracy. 

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