Notes from the Citizens United Summit, Jan 21st 2012

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On Jan 21, 2012, the Citizens United working group, et al sponsored an Citizens United Summit. This is one account of that event.

Lawrence Lessig Talk

(I arrived part-way through this talk.)

Issue with elections: the funders are not the people. Solution: make the people with funders. Replace big-dollar companies with a small-donor system. CT, AZ, and ME have such systems.

Take $50.00 from individual taxes, and return that as a "democracy voucher". Taxpayers use democracy vouchers to contribute to campaigns. $50/voter would be $7 billion dollars. That's real money. (note: by this calculation, there should be 140MM voters).

Suppose a candidate's super PAC spends $1MM against an incumbent. Now the incumbent needs to buy "super PAC insurance"; the incumbent needs to support the super PAC's agenda. This is what Citizens United as given us. It's basically a protection racket.

Proposed amendment: congress shall have the power to limit (but not ban) independent expenditures within 90 days of a general election.

Capitol Hill is now a farm league for K-street. Time spent working for the government is preparation for becoming a lobbyist.

Left vs right is no longer the important political divide. The important political divide is inside vs outside. How can we enable outsider (citizen) politics, involving people who might never run for public office? Outsider politics needs to become an alliance of diverse activists.

Alliances. Within an alliance, members don't give up their individual beliefs; they work to defeat a common enemy. Consider the US and USSR in world war II. We were allied against Germany, and this alliance didn't involve the US supporting communism.

What do we need to start

  1. Clarity. We have to find common ground, e.g., get the corruption out of politics. Find the root cause of our problems.
  2. Passion. We have to be willing to fight, in order to change the way that Washington works.
  3. Courage. This will take courage from the 99%, and from the 1%.

Things we must have

  • publicly funded elections
  • a ban on independent expenditures
  • a resolution stating that corporations are not people

The first two are absolutely necessary. The third would be nice to have.

Comments and Questions

C: Massachusetts had a clean elections law, but this law was de-funded.

Q: What is the role of private media? Private media is usually committed to giving candidates the lowest rate structure.

Q: Why should we limit corporate/union spending? We should limit spending when it distorts the democratic process. Candidates shouldn't be so terrified of negative ad campaigns that they feel compelled to buy super PAC insurance.

C: Once candidates get into office, there are plenty of incentives for them to do the wrong thing (without needing the influence of a super PAC). Abramoff's most effective strategy was to go after congressional staffers. What made Abramoff so powerful? Money.

There is a world of difference between giving an argument to a jury, and giving $100 bills to jurors. If we had publicly-funded elections, politicians wouldn't need to take this money to fund their election campaigns.

Q: Could corporations subvert these changes? This is why we need outsider politics.

Q: Bradley Smith (?) claims that money doesn't matter. It does. Politicians may not be changing their votes, but they are changing their positions in advance.

Q: Would you consider adding "stamina" to your presentations? Movements like this can take a long time (e.g., women's suffrage). But, we might not have that much time.

C: (missed part). The original progressives were trans-partisan. Progressive and liberal are not the same thing. We probably won't make a significant dent in the liberal/conservative distribution. We need to find something else to stand behind.

Q: A lot of groups are proposing amendments. But what if this isn't enough? And, is there a way for us to get big money to fight big money? Lots of movements are too tied to the part of the problem that they've identified. We need to see each others parts. Don't compromise in advance -- wait until the last moment. All of the fights are around money.

C: Incumbents are getting tired of sucking up to Super PACs. Say we found a billionaire that was willing to fund his/her own super PAC, and changed the results of 20 senate seats. He'd own them, and that would make people really uncomfortable. (ed: seems similar to what Grover Norquist did.)

Q: Why not try to enlist the endorsements of high-profile people like Phil Krugman? We should. It would be good to have lots of leaders. Everyone can be part of it, but the movement needs to start at the grass-roots level.

Q: Regarding the Brown/Warren negotiations, what kind of position could they take? I don't believe in unilateral disarmament. But we should ask them to do the right thing once in office.

Q: What about the responsibility of corporations to make profits for their shareholders? Here's what the supreme court missed: our framers believed that government should act in the public good, and that people will act in the public good. Corporations, by charter, do not act in the public good. We cannot expect corporations to act in the public good, so we should keep the public/corporate spheres separated.

C: In the Iowa primary, Romney's super PAC really hurt Gingrich. This gives super PACs a monopoly on the free market of ideas. Endless amounts of money creates distortion. We need an amendment that limits independent expenditures, AND creates publicly funded elections. We need both.

Organizing 101: Building an Activist Team

Workshop presented by Grace Morriss.

How do you get people involved in a movement? We call this process "recruitment". Let's assume that we've been gathering petitions (names and numbers) in support of our movement. We're planning to hold a kickoff meeting, and want to get some of the petition signers to show up in support. We'll do this through "phone banking" -- calling people who gave their phone numbers on our petition.

Suppose we'd like 50 people to show up. To get 50 people, we'll probably need to find 100 that say "yes, I'll show up". To get those 100 "yes, I'll show ups", we'll probably need to call 200 people. Finally, in order to get 200 petition signers, we probably had to talk to 400--600 people. On average, one person can collect 20 petition signatures per hour.

Phone conversations are one of the best ways to get people involved and build support for what you're doing.

When you're one the phone

  • Introduce yourself, and say who you're with.
  • ask they person how they're doing. Thank them for signing your petition.
  • State the issue in the form of a question, like "what do you think about corporate influence in society". Listen to what they say; take notes. Often, you can get good insights this way.
  • Frame the problem, and propose a solution.
  • Give a sense of urgency. We need to do this now because ...
  • When asking for their involvement, make it a question: "Can you come to our kickoff meeting on Saturday?". Be silent and wait for them to make a decision.

Phone banking should involve 50% talking and 50% listening.

Why do we do recruitment? It helps us win. Keep this in mind while calling: we're doing this to win.

Before starting to call, practice your rap a few times.

Smile when you're talking. People can hear the difference.

Supreme Court & Citizens United: How did we get here?

Presentation by Donna Palermino.

There is a huge disconnect between what the people want and what the government is doing. Until we clearly define the problems, it's hard to know what the solutions will be.

Citizens United galvanized people. The Citizens United decision says that corporations cannot, under the first amendment, be limited with respect to independent campaign expenditures.

History of corporations in the US

The framer's view of corporations (~ 1789) was very different from the view we have today. There were very strict limitations on corporate charters. A corporation existed for a fixed period of time, and with a narrowly-defined purpose. Today, corporations can exist in perpetuity, with no limits on purpose. These changes started in the 19th century. Today, Delaware has the most liberal laws of incorporation.

At the end of the first gilded age (~ 1900), railroads, banks, and oil companies had significant political power. This led to strong campaign finance reform laws.

Tilman Act (1907): "all corporate contributions should be prohibited by law. There was a general consensus that unfettered corporate money equaled corruption.

Nixon and Watergate resulted in the Federal Elections Act of 1971. This act allowed congress to put limits on individual political expenditures. It was assumed that corporations couldn't contribute at all.

Buckley v. Valeo was the beginning of our problems. The issue in Buckley: did the 1971 Federal elections act violate the first amendment, and is there a difference between individual contributions and independent expenditures? For the latter question, Buckley said "yes". If you give directly (individual contribution), then there's the potential for bribery; but there's no such danger with independent expenditures. Thus, money is speech, because money amplifies one's ability to speak.

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978). This case involved an early-1900's MA law, prohibiting corporations from contributing to referendum campaigns. The court decided that the MA statute violated the first amendment. Court decided that states cannot discriminate based on the identity of the speaker. This decision allowed corporate expenditures in referendum elections, but not in public elections.

Austin V. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990). This ruling prevented corporations from making independent expenditures. The decision recognized the fact that corporations have special advantages, which individuals do not. Limited liability, and perpetual life, for example.

  • Corporations are owned by shareholders
  • Owners (shareholders) have almost nothing to do with how corporate money is spent.
  • A corporation's management structure decides how to spend the money.

There's a disconnect between whos spending the money, and whos money is being spent.

McCain-Feingold Act (2003). Prohibited independent expenditures 30 days before a primary election, and 90 days before a general election.

Citizens United (2010). Between 2003 and 2010, the composition of the supreme court changed. They revisited their earlier decision (Buckley v. Valeo) and changed their mind. Justice Kennedy wrote the ruling in citizens united, and the dissent in Buckley. Parts of the Citizens United ruling came directly from the Buckley dissent.

Justice Stephens wrote a scathing dissent in Citizens United, saying that 100 years of juris prudence was overturned today.

Corporations can pour massive amounts of money into elections, much more than ordinary people can.

Montana had a state law, much like the one questioned in the Austin case. In Western Tradition Partnership v. Attorney General, the Montana court ruled that the distinction between direct contributions and individual expenditures did not stand. In effect, they rejected the Citizens United ruling. The court found evidence of corruption due to independent expenditures. Corporations are creations of law, and should only enjoy rights granted to corporations by the legislature. "It's ironic that the death penalty and hell are only reserved for natural persons."

What's the future of the Montana case? It could be appealed, and come before the Supreme court. We'll probably hear something about the Montana case in the next year.

Two things need to happen.

  1. Public campaign financing. This won't come out of the US congress; it needs to happen state by state.
  2. A constitution amendment. Donna hasn't decided on the wording that she'd like to see, but she believes that the text of the amendment must come from the bottom. The wording should be hammered out by a broad group of individuals.

When addressing this issue, we need to consider very wealthy individuals, as well as corporations.

Power Analysis

Determine who you need to influence (person X). Identify people/groups that can influence person X. Are these people/groups for you, or against you.

(No notes from the rest of this session.)

Legislative Strategies Breakout Group

I believe this was run by a member of the MA League of Women Voters.

Where do laws come from? Laws can come from legislators, the Governor, state agencies, special commissions, and voter mandates. In any year, there are probably 6,000+ pieces of legislation proposed.

To see pending legislation:

  • click "Government and Taxes"
  • click "Branches and Agencies"
  • click "Legislative Branch"
  • click "General Court"

The process starts with filing a petition. Petitions are due at 17:00 on the 2nd Wednesday in January, during the first year of a two-year session. Petitions are filed with the senate clerk. Before filing, you'll try to get other legislators to support your petition.

Once a petition is filed, it is assigned a bill number, and assigned to a committee. The committee decides when to handle the bill. Currently, there are 28 joint committees in MA.

The joint committee must give 48 hours notice before hearing the bill. The hearing is open to the public. Anyone can present testimony. If you present testimony, be sure to have a written copy for the record.

The join committee usually goes into executive session. Executive sessions are open to the public, but the public is not allowed to speak. During the executive session, the committee will arrive at recommendations: ought to pass, ought not to pass, should be amended, should go to another committee, or should be referred to study.

If you'd like to impact the process, get to know the aides of committee members. The aides are generally the ones who read and study the bills.

Committee meetings and study must occur by March 21 in the second year of the legislative session.

The committee will make a recommendation to the Bill's author. The recommendation is called the bill's first reading. (The bill may, or may not, actually be read.)

A steering and policy committee schedules a hearing, which is called the second reading of the bill. This happens during a formal session. The public can listen, but not comment. Here, the process shifts focus from committees to the entire legislature.

If voted positively, the bill goes to a third reading. During the third reading, legislators go through the bill with a fine-toothed comb. They debate motions and amendments. They'll vote to have the bill "engrossed", which is an official printing of the Bill. From here, the bill goes to the other legislative house for debate.

If the second house votes favorably, then the bill goes to the Governor. The Governor can sign, not sign, veto, or veto with recommendations. If the governor chooses not to sign, the bill becomes law after ten days.

We pass about 70 major bills per year.

Reports from Breakout Sessions

(missed the beginning). We need to start with corporate research, to understand where they make money, and where we can apply pressure.

Get New Americans Engaged. Naturalized citizens tend to vote less often. How can we get them engaged? We need to explain that voting is a freedom. How do we work across assimilation vs integration?

Disclosure and Corporate Accountability. Disclosure is essential. There is no legal mechanism that allows shareholders to influence a corporation's political expenditures. S.304 and S.305 are applicable state bills. These bills are currently in committee. We should encourage committee members to report back favorably.

League of Women Voters. We presented the set of steps required for a state bill to become law. This process can take years. We discussed barriers, and where citizens can have the greatest impact.

We talked about passing local resolutions, asking congress to pass amendments (against corporate personhood?). Several towns and cities have already done this. We talked about steps involved, and about ballot initiative tactics.

(missed this one)

Report from Organizing 101

MA has a state law, which prohibits towns from passing laws which supersede state laws. We're trying to get a town resolution to transition away from using pesticides on public land. We'd be happy to share the language of our warrant article. We'd also like to work on state regulations regarding use of pesticides on public land.

The best way to fight agribusiness: don't eat meat or dairy.

Super PACs. Negative ads reduce voter turnout. We discussed a Mother Jones graphic that illustrated this. We talked about different ways that people can contribute to politicians, some of which are shadier than others. Democracy should be free from the influence of money. Free markets provide some version of democracy. We must change the notion that money corresponds to free speech.

Citizen Lobbying Training Workshop

Grace Ross

How would you speak to an elected official. Just getting the opportunity to do this seems hopeless.

First, consider the question "who has the power to change what I want to change". This could be people who write and pass the laws, the people who implement the laws, and the people who regulate/enforce the laws.

For example, consider the goal of banning pesticides. You could lobby the World Trade Organization, the EPA, municipalities. You might lobby the AMA, to get them as an ally. In general, you want to figure out who the players are, and how they make their decisions. This part is power analysis.

There is almost always someone on the inside who is interested in the things you are interested in. The person you're speaking to might actually be an ally. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want.

All battles are first won in the imagination.

Don't let state buildings intimidate you -- they're designed to do this!

The lobbyists point of view: if I have enough votes lines up, then it doesn't matter what the people in charge think. Lobby every single person you can get to. This is not the traditional lobbying model, but it's a very democratic one.

A web site to help you find your elected officials:

Get your elected official's phone number. Assume that you can call them; they represent you, and they want to hear from you. You're just as entitled to speak with them as anyone else.

Pam Wilmot

Elected officials see a lot less of you than you think. They're people too. Relate to them on that level.

Be passionate about what you believe in, but know your facts, and be able to make a cogent argument.

Avi Green

Lobbying is a lot like recruiting, or persuasion. Ask for specific things, and say why you need them. If it makes you more comfortable, bring a friend along.

Getting 50 emails/week on a single issue will get a state representative's attention, if these emails come from people in their district. If a representative agrees to meet with you, be sure to follow-up and say thanks.

Breakout session notes

  • Research the person you're going to talk to.
  • Be prepared for the official to play devil's advocate. Give them reasons they can use to justify support of your position.
  • Be prepared to have your representative talk over the issue as they see it in their mind (probably in a different way than you're seeing it).
  • Be able to answer the question "Why do you care about this?"
  • Any legislator on a committee (1) has some expertise in the field, and (2) is getting some money thrown at them.
  • Don't just know the facts. Know what you're asking the elected official to do.

Next Steps

Closing presentation, given by Jules Levine.

People come to the United State for noble reasons. Over time, we strayed. We put too much emphasis on economic gain, and not enough emphasis on freedom. Corporations wanted very accommodating governments, to make it easier for the corporations to make more money. This has shackled people. One person's vote is not equal to every other person's vote.

The 1% are able to control our destiny, almost as much as the Czars in Russia.

What can we do? Come to the Feb. 28th hearing of S.772. Join other activists who are working to end corporate personhood.

We should also support public financing, so that elected officials aren't inclined to ignore the 99%. Public financing should be sought in a very rigorous fashion. MA passed a public financing law with a 66% vote, then repealed it. There are lots of groups that we can work with: Common Cause, etc. Be flexible, there are a lot of options.

If you lobby officials re: S.772, hint that "if you vote to defeat this, then we will vote to defeat you."

Today, times are financially tough. As long as the 1% dictates government, this isn't going to get any better. If we can get the 1% out of politics, then politicians will go back to being judged on their merit.