Turns out "corporations are not people" makes a better slogan than a constitutional amendment.
A month after 64 Vermont towns passed town meeting day resolutions opposing corporate personhood and the Citizens United court ruling, a joint resolution to that effect finally passed out of committee in Montpelier.
J.R.S. 11, which emerged from committee this week, urges Congress to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that spawned super PACs and gave corporations permission to spend unlimited sums in elections. The full Senate takes up the resolution next week.
If it passes, Vermont would join legislatures in Hawaii, New Mexico, Alaska, Iowa, Maryland and California in opposing Citizens United.
As originally proposed in January 2011, the resolution stated that "corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States or any of its jurisdictional subdivisions." But constitutional lawyers warned the Senate Government Operations Committee that simply declaring that corporations are not people — and therefore shouldn't have the same constitutional rights — could have the unintended consequence of stripping constitutional protections from churches, newspapers or any other entity set up as a corporation.
The final version still declares that "money is not speech" and "corporations are not persons" but lawmakers added this clause to the resolution as a safeguard: "The General Assembly does not support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would abridge the constitutional rights of any person or organization including freedom of religion or freedom of the press."
Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) doesn't think the added language was necessary but supported the final version because he feels the resolution sends a "very strong" signal to Washington.
"We're not writing a constitutional amendment," Pollina said yesterday outside the legislator lounge at the capitol. "We're simply sending a strong message that Vermonters are increasingly angry with money in politics and the power of corporations to dictate policy and control our lives."
The resolution doesn't just oppose Citizens United; it would also put the Legislature on record against Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 Supreme Court case that equated money with speech in elections. The Citizens decision went even further by effectively denying the Congress or legislatures legal authority to regulate independent corporate expenditures in elections. The Vermont resolution seeks to restore those rights.
Pollina acknowledged that the Congress isn't likely to amend the Constitution "because Vermont asked them to." But by passing the symbolic resolution, he said, Vermont shows leadership.
Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham), who serves on the committee that worked on the resolution, voted for it. But he called it a "meaningless resolution." Far more significant, Galbraith said, would be passing a ban on corporate contributions to Vermont candidates, as he has proposed doing. A campaign finance reform bill that passed the Senate last year is stuck in the rules committee — and shows no signs of moving this year — because Galbraith has said he was attaching a floor amendment banning corporations from donating directly to Vermont political candidates.
Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden, pictured) is the lead sponsor of the resolution. Asked if she was happy with the final product, Lyons said, "I think I am. It endorses what the towns have done." Lyons believes the resolution has the potential to make real change because it puts the issue in the news. She said it already has had an impact.
"When we started this last year, it wasn't Bernie's issue. But it has become his issue because people are so angry about Citizens United," Lyons said, referring to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has introduced a constitutional amendment, called the "Saving American Democracy Amendment," that would overturn the court ruling.
Lyons said that U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and U.S. Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) have also embraced solutions to the spending spree unleashed by Citizens. They've sponsored the DISCLOSE Act, which would prevent government contractors from making expenditures in elections and establish better disclosuer requirements for campaign spending.