Updated Below with Comment from U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT)
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) today proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed unrestricted campaign spending by corporations and labor unions.
The amendment — dubbed the "Saving American Democracy Amendment" — would reverse the narrow 5-to-4 ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. In that controversial January 21, 2010 decision, justices gave corporations and unions the same First Amendment free-speech rights as people when it comes to campaign finance spending.
It's the first time Sanders has proposed a constitutional amendment in his two decades in Congress.
“There comes a time when an issue is so important that the only way to address it is by a constitutional amendment,” said Sanders in a statement. He called the court's ruling "a complete undermining of democracy.”
Sanders' amendment would make it clear that corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as people and that corporations may be regulated by Congress and state legislatures. It also would preserve the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press. It would reinstitute a century-old ban on corporate campaign donations to candidates, and establish broad authority for Congress and states to regulate spending in elections.
Sanders has launched an online petition urging people to support his proposed constitutional amendment.
One of the first stops for Sanders' amendment will be the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by his fellow Vermont pol, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
A Leahy spokesman said the senator supports attempts to undo the damage of the Citizens United ruling, but is skeptical that the Senate will muster the two-thirds super majority necessary to pass Sanders' proposal.
"As chairman of the Judiciary Committee Senator Leahy has held hearings about the corrosive impact of the Citizens United decision and of other recent [Supreme Court] decisions. As you know he strongly believes it was wrongly decided and speaks out about it often," said David Carle, a Leahy spokesman. "He is an original cosponsor of the DISCLOSE Act, the proposed statutory fix. When he and others tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act, Republicans filibustered it. Of course that suggests that the likelihood of garnering the super majority needed for a constitutional amendment is far beyond reach in the current Congress."
Carle said Leahy's legislation, combined with the growing Occupy movement against corporate influence in policy and politics, demonstrates there is a "growing awareness among the American people about the damage from this decision, and this will certainly be an issue in next year’s presidential election and in next year’s public discussion of appointments to the Court."
The issue has also been fomenting here in the Green Mountain State.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered recently in Montpelier to discuss an effort by ice cream moguls Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield to gather more public support to amend the constitution. David Cobb of Move to Amend also spoke.
Earlier this year, too, State Sen. Virginia "Ginny" Lyons (D-Chittenden) introduced a resolution that would put the state legislature on record calling on Congress to initiate the process to amend the constitution. If approved this coming session, Vermont would be the first state legislature to pass such a resolution. A similar resolution has been introduced in the Florida legislature, and several towns and cities around the country have approved similar measures calling on Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment process.
In response to the news about Sanders' proposal, Lyons told Seven Days that the resolution is being reviewed in the Senate Government Operations Committee and she expects that it will be passed out of committee — and hopefully approved by the full Senate — before the January 21 anniversary of the Citizens United ruling.
In addition, tonight Lyons and others who support a constitutional amendment plan to put the final edits to a ballot resolution they hope towns will take up at Town Meeting Day in 2012. The ballot item would urge the legislature to call on Congress to amend the constitution to ondo the effects of Citizens United. The town of Lincoln approved such a ballot item at its town meeting earlier this year.
"I think it's great that there is growing awareness and support for this effort. This is not about not liking business, this is about loving democracy," said Lyons. "This is just absurd for a ruling to have gotten us into such a tangle."
Asked about Sanders' proposed amendment, Scott Coriell, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), said, "Peter believes a constitutional amendment is necessary to overturn the Citizens United decision," said "He’s supporting three different amendments currently pending in the House."
Those amendments are being offered by Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD), James McGovern (D-MA) and Ted Deutch (D-FL). Sanders' proposed amendment is a companion measure to the one being offered by Deutch.
Image courtesy of the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders. The photo was taken at the March town meeting in Montpelier.