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Money is Not Speech and Constitutional Rights are for Human Beings

Following an unusually placid series of votes approving budget items, Canterbury, New Hampshire’s annual Town Meeting came to life during a debate over a resolution calling for a Constitutional Amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

Discussion began with a well delivered speech by Laurie Lockwood, who said that due to the 2010 ruling, “there can now be no effective restraint placed on campaign spending by corporations, Political Action Committees, unions,  or groups of any kind.  If you have a mailbox, a radio, or a TV, you are aware of the results.”

Lockwood explained that the purpose of the resolution is to pressure Congress to act, in accord with Article Five of the US Constitution.  Amendments are rare, P3130042

Laurie Lockwood

but not unprecedented, she said, and it is our duty as citizens to take action.

The resolution was pretty straightforward, calling on the town’s elected officials to support an amendment to the US Constitution establishing that “only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights; and money is not speech, and  therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

Without change, according to Lockwood, we will have more “nasty, expensive elections that discourage participation, and we end up with representatives who are indebted to wealthy and powerful interests.”

In a thinly veiled reference to the brothers Koch, Lockwood said “fossil fuel interests have already pledged to spend a billion dollars on the 2016 elections.” 

When she finished, many town residents applauded and it looked for a moment like we might proceed to a vote without further remarks.  But Howard Moffett, a retired attorney who serves as one of Canterbury’s State Representatives, decided to share his reservations.  Although he had voted for similar resolutions at the State House, he said he was concerned that language calling for the end of corporate personhood went too far.  He said he would have preferred the resolution was drafted differently, but that he would support it because “we just have too much money in our politics drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens.” 

Rep. Moffett’s statement elicited a invitation for him to elaborate on his concerns and a request for information about how the resolution had been drafted.  Rep. Moffett spoke again briefly, and I addressed the origin of the resolution and its relationship to others being considered all over the country, which together can create a groundswell of pressure on Congress to act even if they don’t share theP3130015 exact same wording.  

Another voter asked about corporate personhood, which brought Laurie Lockwood to the microphone again for a short history lecture. 

Finally Judy Elliott took the floor.  “We want to make it clear that corporations do not have the right to spend unlimited money on elections.”  That was the last word.

Wayne Mann, the town’s Moderator, called for a vote, which in Canterbury is conducted by voters waving a green card for “yes” or a red card for “no.”  There were a few “no” votes, but no doubt that the resolution had the overwhelming support of the citizens present.   

The vote followed weeks of organizing by a small, informal committee of Canterbury residents who worked together to draft the resolution, collect petition signatures, organize an educational program at the library, and talk up the issue in town.   Canterbury now joins dozens of other New Hampshire towns, and hundreds across the country, that are calling for the Constitution to be amended.  

Disclosure: the photos of people voting were taken during earlier votes, not the vote on Article 9, the resolution on Citizens United.

 

 

 

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“Even a Senator Can Learn Something”

I wrote this for the American Friends Service Committee’s “Governing Under the Influence” website.  See more at http://gui.afsc.org/

The Concord Snowshoe Club, a rustic and out-of-the-way venue in New Hampshire’s capital city, was the site of a kick-off event for Senator Lindsey Graham’s possible presidential campaign on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Hosted by the City Republicans, the “Politics and Pies” event was free, open to GOP members and unaffiliated voters, and open as well to the press.  Senator Graham arrived on time, took a position by the fireplace, gave a short speech about his priorities, and responded to questions for more than an hour.

Graham is an aggressively hawkish critic of President Obama’s foreign and military policy, but at the same time takes a perspective on domestic issues that tends P3080063toward the pragmatic rather than the ideological.   Immigration is an example.

Graham was among the 14 Republicans who voted with the Senate majority for a complex immigration reform bill in 2013.  Had it passed the House, the bill would have increased funds for “border security” (i.e. more police, soldiers, weapons, and fences for the US-Mexican border) and created a tortuous path that would have enabled many of the country’s 11 million undocumented residents to gain legal status and qualify eventually for citizenship.  Graham described it as a “rational and practical” approach to immigration.

In the Q&A session, I asked Senator Graham about the budget provision which mandates that federal authorities have 34,000 immigrants in detention on any given day.   “The big beneficiaries of this seem to be the private prison companies, the for-profit companies, which is where about half of the immigrants are housed.  And of course they turn around the profits and lobby for more prisons and immigration policies that benefit them,” I said, asking how we can get to a rational policy in the face of such realities.

“I thought I knew everything about immigration until now,” Senator Graham responded.  “Even a Senator can learn something.”

Without discussing the detention bed mandate, Senator Graham launched into an explanation of the need for immigration reform, starting with the fact that the reason so many immigrants are coming here is to work and that the country has a long-term labor shortage.   The Senator also believes GOP support for immigration reform will help the party woo Hispanic voters.

In response to a question from Rev. Dwight Haynes about a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Graham said he “would like to control money in politics to the extent that it will destroy the political process.”

“Here’s what we’re going to lose in democracy if we don’t have control over the money.  The most influential people in the country will be the ones with the most money, and the ads you see on TV ad nauseum, you don’t know where they’re coming from, you don’t know who’s responsible for them.”  Graham said he wouldP3080048 support a constitutional amendment as long as it applies to union funds as well as funds from corporations.   Then he joked he wouldn’t walk as far as Granny D did. 

Senator Graham spent much of the time outlining his support for higher levels of military spending, aggressive action in the Middle East, and a “generational struggle to defeat radical Islam.”

“You could close Gitmo tomorrow and give the Palestinians everything they’ve ever hoped for and this would still be trying to kill us, Israel and everybody that disagrees with them because God commands them to do so,” he said.  “They’re crazy.”

Senator Graham has launched a political committee, Security Through Strength, to help him “’test the waters’ for a potential 2016 run for president.”  We can look forward to picking up where this discussion left off next time he’s in town. 

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This article was first published in the Concord Monitor, January 15, 2015

When President Lyndon Johnson reached Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by phone on January 15, 1965, it wasn’t to offer birthday greetings. The president wanted to strategize about voting rights.

The two leaders were at the peak of their popularity. King had recently returned from Oslo with the Nobel Peace Prize and was gearing up a voting rights campaign centered in Selma, Alabama. Johnson, elected by a landslide two months earlier, had boldly called for “enforcement of the civil rights law and elimination of barriers to the right to vote” for African Americans in his January 7 “State of the Union” speech.

“We take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is,” the president told Dr. King. “That’s right,” King responded.

But between the two leaders and realization of voting rights stood the power of southern politicians and the often violent enforcement of white supremacy that blocked blacks from the voting rolls in southern states. In Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was the major city, only 335 blacks were registered to vote by fall, 1964, despite repeated efforts. Outside Selma, black majority rural counties had no black voters at all. Attempts to register could provoke beatings, firings, or worse.

Before the Selma-based campaign led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of people would be arrested for peaceful protests, dozens would be beaten, and at least three – Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo– would be murdered by white supremacists. In Jackson’s case, the killer was a state trooper. (Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student from Keene, would be murdered three weeks after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.)

One Person, One Vote Principle is Under Attack

Fifty years later the principle of one person, one vote is again under attack, though the forces arrayed against democracy are less bloody.

For starters, federal election law been tilting toward the power of dollars and away from votes – just look at the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. In a 2013 case, Shelby vs. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School calls “a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting.” Congress has power to rewrite the provision and restore this power to the Justice Department but has taken no action to date.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Court famously affirmed the principles that corporations are people and money is speech, thus opening the gates for floods of corporate cash to pour into the election system. In 2014’s McCutcheon decision, the Court enabled donors to invest as much as $2.4 million in congressional candidates every two years. Then Congress piled on at year’s end with a last-minute amendment to the budget bill that raised the limits on contributions to political parties from $97,200 a year to $776,000.

Meanwhile the states have again become major battlegrounds for voting rights. According to the Brennan Center, 21 states, including New Hampshire, have approved measures to restrict voting since 2010. These include Voter ID requirements, laws making it harder to register, reduced voting hours, and measures making it harder for people with criminal records to regain their voting rights.

Race Still Drives Attacks on Voting Rights

“Race was also a significant factor,” the Brennan Center reports. “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election.”

New Hampshire is likely to see further efforts to erode voting rights in 2015. Bills to restrict same-day registration and suppress student voting are on the legislature’s agenda.

It’s not like the country has a problem of too many people voting. Nationwide, only 35.9% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014. In New Hampshire, 47.6% of eligible voters went to the polls – hardly a figure to be proud of if we really believe in government of the people by the people and for the people.

Fortunately, lawmakers and voting rights advocates are taking action. In New Hampshire, bills are being proposed to make it easier to cast absentee ballots and to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the General Election.

A bi-partisan bill to put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act is likely to return to Congress. At the grassroots level, a growing nationwide movement is calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish clearly that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are intended for actual persons, not corporations, and that government regulation of campaign finance can be accomplished without infringing on political speech. In New Hampshire, more than 50 communities already have adopted resolutions backing such a measure.

The January 19 holiday marking Dr. King’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision on January 21 can be occasions for us to re-assert our commitment to democracy. Shall we overcome?

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“One Day Longer, One Day Stronger”

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With an inflatable corporate pig hovering behind them, hundreds of IBEW and CWA members with their allies rallied at the State House yesterday calling for a fair contract with FairPoint Communications.

The two unions went on strike ten weeks ago following months of frustrated bargaining before and after their contract expired on August 2.

“In April, FairPoint came out with their one contract proposal,” IBEW leader Glenn PC190063 Brackett said, waving his index finger while speaking from a stage attached to a Teamsters truck parked next to the State House.

The unions made three comprehensive proposals and even offered $200 million in concessions, Brackett said. But the company has refused to deal and lied to the public along the way. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of consumers have complained to the Public Utilities Commission that the company, which took over Verizon’s New Hampshire landlines in 2008, is not providing the services for which it is getting paid.  Vermont’s E-911 system has been among the casualties, as has the City of Nashua’s internet service. 

“This company has no credibility,” Brackett charged.

“The corporation is in North Carolina and this morning they have internet.  They’ve got 911 and their telephones work,” Brackett said.  “Why?  Because FairPoint does not provide services to the communities in which their executives live.” [see video] 

“How long will the State of New Hampshire allow its public safety to be threatened by a company frPC190054om North Carolina?,” Brackett asked. 

Strikers and supporters took a few circuits around the State House lawn, chanting and chatting, while  Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter and retired IBEW member Linda Horan greeted them as they went by.  Other political figures in the crowd included State Representative Renny Cushing and State Senators Jeff Woodburn, Donna Soucy, and Lou D’Allesandro. 

The crowd left the State House at about 12:30 pm and walked a few blocks to the FairPoint office on South Street, where they chanted some more and tauntedPC190065 strikebreakers who were looking down from company windows. 

The conflict is not just about wages and benefits.  Central to FairPoint’s strategy is its intent to outsource jobs now held by union members.  The unions points out that the service problems consumers are experiencing now will become the norm if FairPoint can hire unqualified contractors to perform functions now carried out by experienced union workers. 

The conflict over contracting out is emblematic of developments in the larger PC190064

economy, where outsourcing via staffing agencies is becoming the norm in ever larger sectors of the labor market.  Strong unions are about all that stops the slide toward a disposable workforce.

That may be why clergy from the United Church of Christ have decided to speak up about the FairPoint strike.  In a column published in the Valley News, they wrote:

So here we are today: hedge fund corporate owners versus dedicated New Hampshire (and Maine and Vermont) workers who have the courage to take a stand to protect the kinds of jobs that sustain families and strong communities. Shades of Moses standing up against Pharaoh’s hard heart, perhaps? Or David versus Goliath? Or Jesus challenging the greedy money changers?

According to the Concord Monitor, a spokesperson for Governor Maggie Hassan said she is “concerned about the disruption in FairPoint services and its impact on the state’s communications infrastructure, our public safety systems and economy, as well as the company’s overall commitment to the people and businesses of New Hampshire.”

“One day longer, one day stronger,” the strikers chanted.  That’s great spirit, but some emergency funds for workers on strike more than two months will help.  You can contribute to the IBEW/CWA Solidarity Fund by clicking here.

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But will the debate over the influence of mega-corporations continue to animate political debate?

This article was first published in New Hampshire Business Review.

Passage last month of a bill to keep the federal government running also extended the life of the Export-Import Bank, a controversial federal agency, until June 2015. The measure may also extend the life of an inside-the-GOP debate over “corporate cronyism” and mega-corporations that succeed in business due more to their political connections than their entrepreneurial prowess. Such debate is welcome.

In case you haven’t paid attention to discussions going on among conservative members of Congress and in the conference rooms at conservative think-tanks, right-wingers have taken to denouncing the cozy ties between big government and big business. The Ex-Im Bank, which provides loan guarantees to U.S. corporations peddling their goods and services in other countries, may provide the political context, but the principles reach far into other sectors of the economy and federal policy.

Speaking about the Export Import Bank and the “conservative reform agenda” in April at the Heritage Foundation, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a possible Republican

2014 04 12 mike lee @ freedom summit

Senator Mike Lee at the “Freedom Summit” in Manchester

presidential candidate, denounced “America’s crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare and political privilege: In which government twists public policy to unfairly benefit favored special interests at the expense of everyone else.”

This is the stuff of fire-breathing populism, not what we expect to hear at Heritage.

But Senator Lee continued: “The more power government amasses, the more privileges are bestowed on the government’s friends, the more businesses invest in influence instead of innovation, the more advantages accrue to the biggest special interests with the most to spend on politics and the most to lose from fair competition.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, another conservative Republican considering a run for president, has made similar statements. “Big companies may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it,” he said at a GOP fundraiser in New Hampshire.

The senators remind us of President Eisenhower warning the American people to “guard against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial-complex.”

Take Boeing, the aerospace company that ranks second among Pentagon contractors and has also attracted the ire of Ex-Im Bank critics.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Boeing’s hangar houses 85 lobbyists. Its annual tab for lobbying runs to about $15 million a year, and more than $9 million already in 2014.

That amount may be understated. Political scientists believe actual lobbying expenses are three times the amount disclosed on official forms

There’s more to cronyism than money spent on lobbyists. There’s the issue of the “revolving door,” people who go from elected office and jobs on Capitol Hill or the Pentagon to more lucrative careers at lobbying firms. Boeing’s lobbyists include four former members of Congress plus a firm founded by former House Speaker Richard Gephardt. In Eisenhower’s terms, Boeing’s influence is definitely “sought.”

Big companies also grease the wheels through campaign contributions, especially to incumbent members of Congress in leadership roles.

CQ Roll Call reported last month that “four of the top five candidates for the chairmanships of the House Armed Services and Intelligence panels have raised considerably more money this election cycle than they did at a similar point in 2012. The same four have also raised much more money from the defense industry than before – in some cases, more than doubling their takes.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is a contender for the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. According to CQ Roll Call, Thornberry has more than doubled his take from defense firms compared to the previous election cycle. Number five on Thornberry’s campaign committee donor list is Boeing.

The federal government and the Export-Import Bank have avoided shutdown for the time being. But the notion that mega-corporations have too much influence over federal policy has found new champions and should outlast the Ex-Im debate. Perhaps even the Democrats will join in.

Governing Under the Influence, #GUI

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Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assembles an impressive array of facts that illuminate the realities of wealth inequality in America.  

Citing Federal Reserve figures, Edsall reports that household net worth, corporate profits, and the value of real estate have been going up at an impressive pace.  If you think that sounds like evidence of recovery you’d be mistaken, at least if you equate “recovery” with economic conditions that are improving for most workers.   

“The September Federal Reserve Bulletin graphically demonstrates how wealth gains since 1989 have gone to the top 3 percent of the income distribution,” he writes.  “The next 7 percent has stayed even, while the bottom 90 percent has experienced a steady decline in its share.”

It’s not just wealthy individuals getting wealthier; it’s also the corporations they own and run.    Citing statistics from Goldman Sachs, Edsall says corporate profits rose five times faster than wages last year.  And he quotes an article from Business Insider that stated,

“America’s companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America’s corporations — are hogging a record percentage of the country’s wealth for themselves.”

Edsall asks, “Why don’t we have redistributive mechanisms in place to deploy the trillions of dollars in new wealth our economy has created to shore up the standard of living of low- and moderate-income workers, to restore financial stability to Medicare and Social Security, to improve educational resources and to institute broader and more reliable forms of social insurance?”

It’s the right question. 

For answers he turns to a bunch of economists, who provide data about tax rates, labor force participation, the declining growth of well-paying jobs, globalization, and the reduction of labor’s share of profit relative to capital in a time of rising productivity.  

My answer is a bit more straightforward:  America’s companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America’s corporations — are hogging the political system.  This is nothing new, but in the legal environment created by recent Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United and McCutcheon in particular) it is becoming easier for corporate interests to wage class war and win.  Simply put, the people who make the laws and set the policies have their receptors tuned to the frequency where the corporations are broadcasting. 

Edsall notes survey data that reveal corporations are not so popular in the USA and other so-called “advanced countries.”   He asks if the legitimacy of free market capitalism in America is facing fundamental challenges.

My gut response is to say “I hope so.”  But the dynamics described by all those economists are not the workings of “the invisible hand.”  The market is operating under a set of rules established by those who already have more than their fair share of power, wealth, and privilege.  The legitimacy of our corporate-directed political system must be challenged as well.

#GUI

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Democracy Movement Takes a Message to Senator Ayotte

NASHUA, NH — The “Democracy for All Amendment” failed on a procedural vote today in the US Senate, but not before a dozen New Hampshire activists made one more attempt to get Senator Kelly Ayotte to support overturning the US Supreme P9110119Court’s “Citizens United” decision.

“Corporations are not people.  They should not control our political process,” Representative Sylvia Gale of Nashua said to the group assembled at City Hall Plaza at 9 am this morning.

The group was small, but they are part of a large movement of people concerned that “corporate people” and the wealthiest Americans have the legal ability to drown out competing voices in the political process.

“I don’t have a lot of money and I want my voice to be heard,” explained Fred Robinson, who drove to Nashua from Goffstown to participate.   

“Democracy should work for people,” offered Dr. Thabile Mnisi-Misibi, an ANC member visiting from South Africa.

The contingent of 13 people walked with signs and chants througP9110155h the downtown district to the Senator’s office.  There, they delivered a petition with 12,000 New Hampshire names calling on Senator Ayotte to support the constitutional change.   

“This is an issue for all of New Hampshire, and Senator Ayotte needs to get involved,” said Dan Weeks of the Coalition for Open Democracy, the group which led the organizing of today’s action.

Weeks handed the petitions and supporting material to Simon Thomson, an aide to Senator Ayotte, who met the group on the sidewalk outside her office.

Dan Weeks presenting petitions to Simon Thomson.

A similar action took place last week at Senator Ayotte’s Portsmouth office.

Ayotte voted Monday for a motion that allowed consideration of the amendment to go forward, but today joined her GOP colleagues voting against ending debate, thereby blocking the measure from an up or down vote on its merits.   New Hampshire’s other Senator, Jeanne Shaheen, was a co-sponsor of the amendment proposal.

The notion that the Supreme Court believes corporations are people, that money is speech, and that therefore corporations can spend without limits to affect election campaigns has provoked a reaction expressed through petitions, resolutions, and proposals for constitutional change.  SJ Resolution 19, the proposal defeated today in the P9110141US Senate, is just one of a couple dozen advanced by members of Congress in response to Citizens United.  Some groups, such as Move To Amend, have made it clear they think it doesn’t go far enough to reverse corporate constitutional rights.  But it was the only proposal likely to get considered in the foreseeable future, so many groups calling for constitutional change were on board. 

Writing in his blog at The Nation earlier this week, John Nichols said:

The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.

Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.

No one expected the amendment to get the two-thirds vote it would need to pass or get a vote at all in John Boehner’s House of Representatives.   But the fact that any vote took place is evidence of a significant expression oP9110133f public sentiment that the“Citizens United” decision did serious damage to fundamental issues.  The questions now are whether the movement will grow or fizzle, and whether the pro-amendment groups will intensify their demands for more aggressive language or head down the familiar road of further compromise.  A decision to water down the language in hopes of gaining votes at this point would be a huge mistake.

“Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken,” wrote Nichols, who will speak at an AFSC dinner in Concord on September 27.  “When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.”

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