By Martin Kidston
Sipping tea at a Missoula cafe with a group of community activists, Linda Gillison confessed that her quest to rid politics of dark money doesn’t likely top the list of political wishes held by most Montana voters.
Still, she and others behind Missoula Moves to Amend believe it may rank high enough to build a movement and carry it forward to the national level.
The group, gathered for a recent planning strategy, recalled the 2012 general election in which 74 percent of Montana voters passed an initiative stating that corporations aren’t people and, therefore, aren’t entitled to constitutional rights.
They also note a proposed resolution floating around the U.S. House of Representatives that could amend the U.S. Constitution to say that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech. The U.S. Supreme Court used both points in its Citizens United ruling, which in 2010 overturned the nation’s ban on certain corporate expenditures to political candidates.
“We believe this new ‘We The People’ resolution states the clearest that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech,” said Sue Kirchmyer, chair of Missoula Moves to Amend. “Those are the two elements of Citizens United that need to be addressed. Most of the amendments to come forward at the national level in Congress don’t address both of those issues. But this one does.”
HJR 48, sponsored by Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice in May 2015. Among other things, it notes that the rights protected by the Constitution for natural persons don’t extend to corporations.
It also directs local, state and federal governments to “regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures… to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their economic status, have access to the political process.”
While nothing has happened since the resolution was introduced to committee last May, opponents of Citizen’s United are watching closely. Missoula Moves to Amend has joined the national organization in asking voters to call their representatives in Congress to urge them to support HJR 48.
Doing otherwise, they believe, could place the future of America’s democracy at risk.
“The whole idea that corporations are claiming the rights of personhood under the Constitution has given them the ability to get court decisions in their favor on a number of issues with dark money in politics,” said Nancy Leifer, a member of Missoula Moves to Amend. “They’ve used this claim, the right of free speech, to extend into a number of areas that have gutted our ability to have a say.”
Kirchmyer believes HJR 48 is the first proposed amendment to address both personhood and speech in the same resolution. Still, she noted, it’s not the first attempt to tackle the two issues since the passage of Citizens United.
Montana voters adopted I-166 on Nov. 6, 2012 by a 74.7 percent margin. In doing so, they established a state policy stating that corporations aren’t entitled to constitutional rights because they aren’t people.
In passing the initiative, voters also directed the state’s congressional delegation to propose a resolution in Congress amending the U.S. Constitution to state that corporations are not people.
So far, however, only Sen. Jon Tester has made the effort. The state’s senior senator introduced a constitutional amendment in June 2013 in an effort to overturn Citizens United, saying the court’s decision distorts Montana values and undermines the democratic process.
Tester also co-sponsored a separate amendment with Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, authorizing Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns, while letting states oversee spending at their level.
“Corporations can’t catch a blue ribbon trout or watch their kids graduate from college,” Tester said this week. “Corporations aren’t people and our laws should reflect that.”
Neither Rep. Ryan Zinke nor Sen. Steve Daines responded to a request for comment regarding their position on the issue. Nor did the two Republicans say what they’ve done to uphold the directive passed by Montana voters asking them to amend the U.S. Constitution to state that corporations aren’t people.
Their silence on the issue has some members of Moves to Amend frustrated.
“They’re not dependent on us, but rather, they’re dependent on large donors,” Gillison said. “But it’s not just a Republican thing. It’s the dependence that lots and lots of congressmen and senators have on large money. That takes away their dependence on us, the voters, which is what the Founding Fathers wanted.”
While the members of Missoula Moves to Amend believe the push to overturn Citizens United began as a progressive cause, it has since become a bipartisan effort. To make their case, they note the passage of the Montana Disclose Act in 2015.
The act requires all groups to disclose their donors if they spend money on electoral communications that either mention or target a candidate 60 days from an election.
“At the last Legislature, the Disclose Act could not have passed if there weren’t a non-partisan need,” said Kirchmyer. “We believe that both parties have felt the heavy hand of money in politics.”
The Disclose Act was a start, but the group is looking for action at the national level and is calling on the state’s delegation to take up the issue. They’re also urging supporters to call the delegation and ask them to support the “We The People” amendment.
“The Supreme Court got it so wrong,” said Roger Harvey, a member of Missoula Moves to Amend. “It’s messing with everything – the idea that people with money can influence races that are not even in their state. It has a direct impact on all of us.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org