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Friday, January 20, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Groups try new attack on Citizens United decision

By Dan Eggen
The Washington Post


The Supreme Court set the political world on its head two years ago this week by ruling corporations could spend unlimited money on elections, rolling back decades of legal restrictions.

Liberal-leaning activist groups are marking the anniversary by launching new efforts to overturn the decision, including calls for a potential constitutional amendment.

The 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission effectively laid the groundwork for super PACs, independent groups that have overwhelmed the Republican presidential race with millions of dollars in negative advertising.

The decision, issued Jan. 21, 2010, outraged Democrats and many watchdog groups, but they have had little success in doing anything about it. Activists hope to try again by focusing on the hard task of passing a constitutional amendment, which would require ratification by three-quarters of the states.

"We're already at a point where the public overwhelmingly opposes the decision," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a group helping to spearhead efforts. "The goal is to build a grass-roots movement that will eventually be able to shape the debate."

Public Citizen is teaming with activists to stage about 300 events, most of them Friday or Saturday, targeting multinational companies. Many are billed as "Occupying the Corporations" protests, inspired by the anti-Wall Street protests.

Common Cause also launched a pro-amendment project this week, dubbed Amend2012 and chaired by Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich. It includes a petition drive opposing the Supreme Court's judgment that corporations have the same rights as people when it comes to political speech.

"It's time to stop the unlimited flow of corrupting money into our elections," the petition reads. "... We need a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and declare that only people are people."

On another front, the Corporate Reform Coalition, a group of institutional investors and others, is backing a petition drive urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to require corporations to disclose political spending to shareholders.

These and other such efforts essentially serve as an acknowledgment that previous attempts at reform after the Citizens United decision failed miserably. Obama administration officials and congressional Democrats in 2010 tried to pass legislation requiring fuller disclosure of political spending by corporations, but Senate Republicans blocked the changes.

Advocates for stricter campaign-finance laws also are disgruntled by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which frequently deadlocks along party lines and has given super PACs wide latitude. Several watchdog groups are conducting a petition drive urging President Obama to fill vacant seats. Previous commissioners occupy the seats.

"While the courts did plenty to create this mess ... the FEC bears much responsibility for making a bad situation disastrous," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at Campaign Legal Center. "With super PACs running amok, the Republican presidential primary is exhibit A of a system out of control, and the FEC is complicit in this auctioning of the White House."

Conservatives in large part take a much different tack, viewing Citizens United as only one step toward a less-regulated election system. Republican Mitt Romney, while complaining about some super PAC ads, has argued that contribution and spending limits should be removed for candidates as well.

"I would like to get rid of the campaign-finance laws that were put in place," he said at a debate Monday. "... Let people make contributions they want to make to campaigns, let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words and not have this strange situation we have."

Constitutional amendments first must be proposed by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. (Two-thirds of state legislatures can call for a national convention, but the approach never has been used.) Next, 38 states would have to ratify the amendment, through legislatures or state-level conventions.

Amendments are notoriously difficult to launch and ratify. The 27th Amendment, which limits congressional pay increases, was proposed in 1789, but not ratified until 1992.

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