Editor's Note: This is the last in a three-part series on corporate welfare and citizen representation written by Jack W. Dean of Mattapoisett.
In the early 1970s, as the deleterious effects of unbridled corporate power became more and more visible, a movement was initiated to invoke social responsibility by corporations via stockholder initiatives. While it had some impact on corporate policies, it was not effective enough to countermand the espoused idea that corporations were to maximize profits for their stockholders. This they did by often passing off what can be considered social costs (pollution and other collective adverse unintended consequences) to the general public.
More recently, corporate lawyers and lobbyists have used the courts to increase their profits. Using the concept known as “corporate personhood,” which reflects the idea that corporations should have all the same constitutional rights as ordinary people and the idea that use of money is free speech, they and others with very deep pockets have succeeded in securing Supreme Court decisions (Buckley v. Valeo (1976); First National Bank v. Belotti (1978); Citizens United v. FEC (2010); and McCutcheon v. FEC (2012)) that have opened the floodgates to massive political campaign fundraising and spending by these very same corporations, other artificial entities and individuals. Vast financial resources available to these entities for use in our election process will effect a change in our government from a democracy to an oligarchy or plutocracy, if left unchecked.
In addition, corporations have relied on their newfound constitutional rights to avoid compliance with duly enacted laws. Examples of this include Hobby Lobby, which invoked freedom of religion to avoid providing reproductive health care to its employees, and Lorillard Tobacco, which invoked freedom of speech to continue to advertise cigarettes within 1,000 feet of a school or playground.
One step that has been taken in Massachusetts to overcome these threats to our representative form of government is the crafting of a bill called the “We the People Act,” which has been filed with the state Legislature. This Bill (H.1926 in the House; S.379 in the Senate) calls on Congress to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would affirm that:
• The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only;
• Congress and the states shall place limits on political contributions and expenditures to ensure that all citizens have access to the political process;
• The spending of money to influence elections is not protected free speech under the First Amendment;
• If Congress does not propose this constitutional amendment within six months of the passage of this bill, the bill petitions Congress to set up an Amendments Convention. In either case it will take 38, or three-fourths, of the states to approve such an amendment for it to become law.
Similar legislation has been filed in a number of other states. As of the end of this March, Vermont, California, Illinois, Rhode Island and New Jersey have passed resolutions calling for an Article V Convention to amend the constitution to enable the people to regain control of the amount of money allowed to be spent in elections, and to eliminate the idea that corporations have the same rights as real people. In New Hampshire and Hawaii, their Houses of Representatives have passed such bills and are waiting for the vote by their respective Senates to join the five states mentioned above. In Delaware and Maryland, their Senates have passed such a bill and need only a positive vote by their House of Representatives to send it to Congress.
In Massachusetts, besides the attempt to gain passage of such a bill via the Legislature, there is a new strategy by national organization American Promise to gain passage by appealing directly to the people via a ballot initiative. This initiative will set up a Citizen’s Commission to gather evidence, testimony and advice in accordance with the commonwealth’s Open Meeting and Public Records Laws and issue a Report of Findings and Recommendations, which will be widely disseminated.
Only by overcoming the undue influence that “corporate personhood” gives large moneyed interests, and by controlling the amount of money and transparency of those donating it in our election process, will “welfare” go only to those needing it, and not to those whose political power grants them undeserved public largess.
Jack W. Dean lives in Mattapoisett. He is a member of the public interest group Citizens for Economic Justice.