F.C. Council Goes on Record for Reversal of ‘Citizens United’ Rule

December 11, 2013 7:57 PM13 comments

The Falls Church City Council this Monday adopted a resolution declaring its position “that corporations should not receive the same legal rights as natural persons, that money is not speech, and that political expenditures can be regulated.”

By so doing, the Council joined a reported thousands of other jurisdictions across the U.S. calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reverse the infamous U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision that allows unlimited and anonymous financial contributions to political campaigns.

The City Council vote was 3-0-1 Monday, with both Mayor Nader Baroukh and Vice Mayor David Snyder recusing themselves because of perceived conflicts of interest. It left the gavel in the hands of Council member Johannah Barry. When the vote was taken, Phil Duncan, Ira Kaylin and Barry voted “yes,” and Councilman David Tarter, who said his law practice represents and assists in the creation of corporations, abstained (Councilman Ron Peppe was absent).

The recusals and absenses reducing the quorum of the Council to four, the measure was ruled “passed” by the three votes, according to acting city attorney J. Patrick Taves.

The measure was originally included in the City’s annual legislative package for delivery to its legislative representatives in Richmond, approved on Nov. 25, but was separated our for a stand alone vote at that time.

A staff report to the Council reported, “Members of the Northern Virginia Move to Amend, who reside in the City, have requested that the City Council adopt this resolution supporting a U.S. Constitutional amendment that would reverse the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and other related decisions of the federal courts, which have allowed unlimited corporate spending in federal and state elections. The citizens requesting this action view the corrupting influence of corporations and money in elections as a threat to good government, civic and civil discourse, and the people’s participation in local decision-making.”

The staff recommendation was for passage of the resolution.

In the “be it resolved” section of the resolution, it further states “that a constitutional amendment should make it clear (a) that corporations are not entitled to the constitutional protections or “rights” of natural persons, (b) that money is not speech,” (c) that regulating election-related spending is not the same as limiting political speech, and (d) that Congress and the states may place limits on election contributions and expenditures.

Standing up to speak on behalf of the adoption of the resolution Monday were Brian Siebel, Deborah Roth and Julie Ide. Ide reported that 45 signatures from Falls Church citizens had been secured on a petition supporting the measure. Other City residents active in the effort to secure passage of the resolution included Sean Barnett, Ayman Eldarwish, Robert Crowe and Peg Willingham.

Councilman Duncan thanked the citizens for “doggedly pursuing this for months,” adding that he’d been involved in the issue for many decades, going back to when he worked for the Congressional Quarterly in D.C. in the 1970s. He said that back then, in the wake of Watergate, the sentiment on campaign finance reform was quite the opposite from the form it has taken with the Citizens United decision.

“We need to take our democracy back,” Siebel told the Council. Roth said it was “misguided” for Council members to feel they needed to recuse themselves from voting on the matter. “There is no conflict of interest when it comes to a bad law,” she said.

  • David Chavern

    I wasn’t at this Council meeting but, from the reporting, it appears that no one discussing the matter had any idea about what “Citizens United” actually decided. First and foremost, there was nothing about corporations having the same rights as natural persons. The last time I checked, corporations still cannot give directly to federal candidates. See:
    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-25/politics/37286007_1_contribution-limits-campaign-finance-corporations-and-unions
    As to whether “money is speech”, I am afraid that was “Buckley vs. Valeo” in 1974 — not “Citizens United”. There has certainly been an active debate about that 40-year old precedent, but what unique perspectives the Falls Church City Council has on it I can’t imagine.
    And I note that there was nothing in the resolution about union political activity, which dwarfs corporate political activity.
    I don’t mind vigorous debate on free speech (I am a “free speech extremist” by the way) or campiagn finance. I just wish the City Council would spend its time on local issues about which it has some actual expertise and jurisdiction.

    • RPeppe

      I was out of town on business, but I agree 100% with Dave’s analysis, and had told the group I would have voted against it for those reasons. I know they meant well, but there is much more to this story and the legal history.

      • Nathanael Greene

        We’ll miss you having you on the City Council, Mr. Peppe. I can only hope the new members have more respect for the Constitution than the three who voted for this.

  • David

    What a waste of time for the Council to consider this. Even if you agree with it, what benefit does it bestow upon us, as citizens and taxpayers? Is the FC City Council going to overturn a Supreme Court decision?

    Now, as for the merits: this is ridiculous. The notion that money is a form of speech has been the Supreme Court’s view since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. Why? Because billboards, political signs, bumper stickers, and advertisements cost money.

    As for the more recent issue of whether businesses should get the same speech rights as individuals, consider this: let’s say Anthony’s Restaurant is still around. Rushmark is proposing development that will put it out of business. A political candidate steps forward and runs on a platform to save Anthony’s. Anthony’s owners, of course, want to support that candidate. They want to put up a small sign in their front window showing support, and they’re considering making a $25 donation to help buy yard signs.

    Before Citizens United, those actions would be ILLEGAL. Today, they are not. Liberals like to use the red herring argument of huge businesses spending billions to influence elections — and yet most big businesses backed McCain and Romney, both of whom lost. If you don’t like a corporation’s political views, boycott them, expose them, talk back…but don’t stifle it.

  • Nathanael Greene

    “Money is not speech” sounds plausible until you realize that it means our rulers are free to ban citizens from buying poster boards on which to criticize them. Freedom of speech is meaningless if the government can stop us from spreading the word.

    And cracking down on corporate speech means muzzling everybody from the Sierra Club to the dry cleaners down the block. Nick Benton seems awfully hostile to corporate speech, but I’ll bet he makes an exception for corporations named Benton Communications Inc.

  • Sean Barnett

    We, the members of Northern Virginia Move To Amend, applaud the vote of the Falls Church City Council in passing this resolution. It is one step in the national movement to reclaim democracy for the people from corporate and other wealthy interests that have far too much influence in our politics. The resolution supports a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and related cases—including Buckley v. Valeo—and state that corporations are not entitled to the constitutional protections or “rights” of natural persons and that Congress and the states may place limits on election-related spending (contributions and expenditures).

    The first provision would prevent corporations—entities very widely used to conduct
    business and other activities in the United States but nonetheless artificial creations
    of state governments—from going into court and arguing that the U.S. Constitution
    prevents otherwise applicable provisions of state and federal law from applying
    to them. Under this provision, corporations would retain all the properties and capabilities provided to them by state and federal law but they would not be able to assert that constitutional rights intended for American citizens—human beings—should allow the corporations to evade laws that the states and Congress had passed to govern corporate activities. It would prevent, for example, corporations like Hobby Lobby from arguing in court that their “corporate religion” should allow them to evade requirements under the Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance to their employees.

    The second provision would return the ability of Congress and the states—and through them the people—to regulate election-related spending. In light of the $1.1 billion spent in federal elections in 2012 by corporations and outside groups like Super PACs and trade associations, about $300 million of which was spent by secret donors, it is sorely needed. Our elections should be decided by votes, not money. Money may not have elected John McCain or Mitt Romney, but it can elect Congressmen and Senators and state and local officials. Today, money in politics distorts legislative decision-making by elected officials in favor of wealthy special interests. It causes legislators to devote excessive time and energy to fundraising. It undermines the people’s trust in our government. It creates grossly disproportionate political influence for a few individuals. It creates incentives for government to use regulatory power to encourage political donations. And it prevents the simplification of regulations and the tax code and the creation of freer markets. It needs to stop.

    No, the Falls Church City Council cannot amend the U.S. Constitution. But it can be part of a movement to get Congress and the states to do so. So far, over 500 counties, cities, and towns across the country, from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to the smallest towns in Vermont, along with Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville, and Falls Church, Virginia, have passed resolutions in favor of a constitutional amendment to accomplish these goals. Sixteen states have done the
    same. Taking such steps, one at a time, is how this movement will reclaim democracy for the people. We are thankful for the step that the City Council took last Monday.

    • Joe

      With all due respect, I fail to see what business the Falls Church City Council, or any other local governing body, has in passing such a resolution. The council would be better off sticking to issues relevant to its jurisdiction.

      • Im4GoodGovt

        When candidates win elections because of unlimited amounts of money from corporations, we can expect that to some extent the laws supported by those elected will benefit those corporations. We’ve never before had this amount of money available to candidates or the potential for this much influence. Much of it is hidden behind organizations created to mask the true contributors from the voting public.

        I say that Citizens United has a direct bearing on our City. National laws affect the operation of Falls Church. The officials we elect at the national level pass laws and influence policy that affects the way Falls Church City and its Council govern. For example, national environmental policy influences the City’s storm water policies. As a Falls Church City resident, I think it is the duty of everyone we elect at every level to support Government by the people and for the people.

    • Darren Westbrook

      I completely support Move to Amend’s freedom to advocate the end of the First Amendment as we know it (and to spend money doing so). Still, I have to wonder how Move to Amend can say money isn’t speech and campaign for ending corporate speech rights while simultaneously using corporate money to get its message out. (Move to Amend is bankrolled by Democracy Unlimited, a California corporation–not that there’s anything wrong with that).

      • Sean Barnett

        To be clear, Move To Amend does not advocate the end of the First Amendment, nor the outright ban of corporate spending on elections, but only that that Congress and the states be given the power (again) to regulate spending on elections. An outright ban on corporate spending may not ultimately turn out to be the best solution for our democracy. Furthermore, while the national office of Move To Amend is supported by Democracy Unlimited, a non-profit corporation, Northern Virginia Move To Amend is not–it is a purely volunteer organization that takes no funding from anywhere. Nevertheless, until we are successful in changing the law (by an amendment), Move To Amend will use the legal means available to it to advocate for that change.

    • David

      “The first provision would prevent corporations…from going into court and arguing that the U.S. Constitution prevents otherwise applicable provisions of state and federal law from applying to them.”

      A fifth grader who has taken a basic civics course on Federalism could explain to you how silly this sounds.

      And I’ll point out that you continue to use the red herring of “corporations” but completely overlook unions, who are subject to the same rules, are equally “artificial,” and arguably have a greater role in politics today than corporations.

  • bobcva

    I know firsthand that the Council Members conscientiously considered our request that they adopt a resolution in support of a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision. In fact, among the first questions the Members asked us was why is this federal constitutional issue properly within the purview of the City Council. And they explained they were asking because one of the common criticisms they receive when they take up such matters is “Why are you wasting your time on this instead of dealing with my local issue?”

    Their question caused us to think about this very important point and to give them reasons why we were asking them to act and why they should act. Among those reasons was this: The citizens expect the Council to discern the importance and significance of issues and then use their best judgment in deciding to act or not. The Council does this on a regular basis. For example, through the Resolution Adopting The City of Falls Church 2012 Legislative Program (Resolution 2011-40), the Council supported positions recommended by the League of Women Voters regarding legislation that would facilitate voter registration and voting as priorities for the citizens of Falls Church City. Clearly, access to the ballot box is very important and significant for the integrity of our elections, and the Council acted quite properly in supporting the recommendations of the League of Women Voters. Of similar importance is this issue of unlimited corporate spending in our elections, which erodes the public’s trust in our electoral system at all levels. The Council has a duty to consider issues that affect the integrity of our democracy.

    In face to face discussions or in emails with individual Council Members, each was willing to learn about the issues, to voice their concerns, and to ask questions before they decided whether they would or could support adoption of the resolution. This is true for the Members who voted in favor, Phil Duncan, Ira Kaylin, and Johannah Barry. It is also true of David Tarter, who ultimately abstained, and it is true for David Snyder, who did not come to his decision to recuse himself easily. It is also true for Ron Peppe, who let me know that he disagrees with the substance of the resolution and thinks it is not proper subject matter for the Council.

    In short, communicating with City Council Members about our resolution has given me the opportunity to appreciate our local politics and our politicians. Most are quick to complain about government, but only a few run for and serve in office. I respect and thank all of our Council Members for being among the few.

    I take issue with some posted comments that denigrate the Council for even considering this issue. Because they disagree with the Council’s vote, they try to belittle the Members, as David Chavern does, by implying they could not possibly understand the Citizens United decision. Mr. Chavern goes on to say, “I just wish the City Council would spend its time on local issues about which it has some actual expertise and jurisdiction.”

    To imply that our elected Council Members cannot grasp the concept of the enormous potential for corruption due to unlimited spending to influence elections by multinational corporations, much of that spending in secret and under the color of free speech, is absurd. And as to sticking to local issues, I say there is nothing more local than the integrity of our election system and my exercise of self-government through my local government. Regarding Mr. Chavern’s concern that our Council does not have expertise in this matter, we must ask, if our local elected representatives don’t know anything about how our representative democracy and elections should work, then who does? Local government is the bedrock of American democracy. As to jurisdiction, I say good government and preservation of self-government is within the jurisdiction of each and every citizen and each elected representative at every level.

    The City Council, entrusted with the responsibility to act on our behalf on matters that affect our everyday lives, is the one elected body closest to the people. We can speak to the city council when we may not be able to speak to the state legislature or the Congress. When the City Council speaks, it is recognized throughout the country as the representative political voice for the 13,000 citizens of the city. Local resolutions provide the best avenue for the citizens of each community in the United States to demonstrate in a concrete way their desire for political improvements. Indeed, they are integral to our system.

    Bob Crowe
    Member Northern Virginia Move To Amend

  • David Chavern

    Let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story.

    Nick’s piece above states in the second paragraph: “the infamous U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision that allows unlimited and anonymous financial contributions to political campaigns.” That statement — along with many others noted in these comments about the rules governing political spending is just flat, dead wrong. Full stop. And anyone who expresses a view on a constitutional amendment in this arena that doesn’t understand the actual facts about the law is just blathering to entertain themselves and others.

    For a more nuanced view of the role of money in politics, listen to this episode of NPR’s “This American Life”: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/461/take-the-money-and-run-for-office

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