Lawmakers Fight Money in Politics

Rep. Keith Ellison pushes back on Citizens United and rips attacks from Rep. Allen West.

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Rep. Keith Ellison with other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus
(Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)

In the two years since the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that corporate and union political contributions have First Amendment protection, there's also been a steadily growing, although somewhat ragtag, movement to overturn it. The controversial 2010 decision unleashed a flood of now unlimited corporate money in elections. Super PACs (political action committees) have subsequently (and unprecedentedly) raised almost $160 million, and spent close to $90 million, in this election cycle alone.

Pushing back on the decision, 20 members of Congress have since introduced constitutional amendments to reverse Citizens United; and 21 state legislatures, along with more than 147 cities, have proposed resolutions to roll it back (measures that passed in New Mexico, Hawaii and Vermont). And even though 80 percent of Americans oppose the ruling, this growing counterforce hasn't gained much notice outside of liberal political circles. A new coalition of federal, state and local lawmakers, as well as grassroots activists around the country, are now trying to change that.

Last week representatives of the coalition, under the banner of United for the People, assembled on Capitol Hill to announce and sign a "declaration for democracy," which pledges support for an amendment to the Constitution to overturn Citizens United.  Merging their collective power, hundreds of legislators and organizations have signed on, calling for elected officials across the nation to add their names. The group also highlighted the Resolutions Week initiative, which seeks to pass more than 100 local resolutions against Citizens United en masse during the week of June 11.

Among the members of Congress who signed on to the declaration is Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; all 77 other members of the group also signed it. Ellison spoke with The Root about the movement's goals, why he favors mass action over "academic discussion" on the issue and his thoughts on those "communist" accusations against his caucus from Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.).

The Root: What inspired the Progressive Caucus, and other political groups, to start this movement now?

Keith Ellison: There is a whole grassroots movement of nonprofit organizations that has been focusing on this move to amend. What's happening now is a consolidation of the movement. There were about 13 different constitutional amendments offered by various members -- myself, Ted Deutch, Donna Edwards, John Conyers, Bernie Sanders, a whole bunch of people. Everybody liked their little approach, which is fine -- that's democracy. But what we decided to do, rather than have all these disparate things, was get together on the essential issue and work with the community to come up with a declaration.

TR: If the declaration doesn't hinge on a specific amendment or tactic for overturning Citizens United, what does it do exactly?

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KE: The declaration would not be the language offered as the constitutional amendment. What the declaration says is, "We declare our support for amending the Constitution of the United States to restore the rights of the American people, undermined by Citizens United and related cases, to protect the integrity of elections and limit the corrosive influence of money in our democratic process."

This is language that all of us agree to, that all of us can galvanize behind -- members of Congress, members of city councils, community activists from groups like Move to Amend, Public Citizen, People for the American Way and others. We said, "Why waste time arguing about the fine points of what the language of a constitutional amendment should be, when we don't even have a public movement to drive it?" We need to get the wind behind our back first, and then, once we have a Congress who can move it, and states that would be willing to do it, then we can fight over exactly where the periods and the commas go. But right now we need a mass action.

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