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Advocacy Groups Seek to Curb Corporations

As Occupy Wall Street activists vacate public parks around the country, several new advocacy groups have sprung up to pursue OWS-inspired constitutional amendments to limit the influence of money and corporate lobbying in politics.

The idea of amending the Constitution to overturn “corporate personhood” has also taken hold on Capitol Hill, spawning a half-dozen resolutions in the House and Senate. These include three separate amendments introduced this month by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Betty Sutton (D-Ohio).

“I think the Occupy energy that’s sweeping across America is a huge wave, and anybody who doesn’t get a surfboard on top of it is losing a tremendous opportunity,” said Nick Penniman, president of United Republic, a new nonprofit that’s set out to fight what organizers call “the corrupting influence of well-financed special interests.”

The group moved up its launch date, Penniman said, in part to tap the energy behind the Occupy movement, which lacks a specific agenda but which has spotlighted anti-corporate slogans in cities around the country. Co-founded by Josh Silver, former CEO of the media and technology reform group Free Press, United Republic already has a staff of about a dozen people and plans a $10 million budget for 2012.

Another pro-reform activist who rushed to open his doors this fall is Cenk Uygur, a left-leaning Internet talk-radio host who has launched a group called Wolf PAC to push for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. Uygur, who hosts the show “The Young Turks” and formerly hosted a program on MSNBC, announced the launch in a spirited call-and-response rally with Occupy Wall Street protesters in lower Manhattan last month.

“Corporations are not people,” Uygur shouted to a gathering of Occupy activists, who chanted back, “Corporations are not people.”

Uygur has rounded up 42,000 volunteers all over the country and will soon hire an executive director for his group, he said. Wolf PAC will operate as an unrestricted super political action committee and will focus first on amending the Constitution through the states, and not through Congress. (Any constitutional amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the House and the Senate and ratified by three-fourths of the states.)

“We’re not kidding around,” Uygur said in an interview. “It’s going to be very aggressive. We will pressure the state legislators through calls, possibly occupying state houses.”

United Republic and Wolf PAC join an already existing cluster of pro-reform groups formed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling early last year. That ruling freed both corporations and unions to spend unrestricted organizational money on campaigns.

Groups spawned by the ruling include Move to Amend, a coalition of liberal organizations pushing to amend the Constitution to establish that political spending does not deserve the same protections as free speech; We the People, launched by a trio of progressives that includes Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation; and Free Speech for People, which is pushing a constitutional amendment to establish that “free speech and other Constitutional rights are for people, not corporations.”

“For the first time now, Congress has the opportunity to debate this basic question of whether corporations should be treated as people with constitutional rights,” said John Bonifaz, who co-
founded Free Speech for People the day after the Citizens United ruling with Boston lawyer Jeff Clements. Clements has just authored a forthcoming book titled “Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It.”

Given the large majorities needed to amend the Constitution at both the federal and the state level, lawmakers and activists pushing for constitutional changes face an uphill battle. They are also up against free-speech advocates who argue that amendments targeting corporations violate constitutional First Amendment rights.

“Silencing one group may be politically beneficial in the short-term for certain groups,” wrote Joe Trotter, media manager of the pro-free-speech Center for Competitive Politics, in a recent FrumForum blog post on recent anti-corporate rhetoric. “However, it ultimately leaves everyone worse off because it creates a knowledge vacuum. In our society, public and private sectors are hopelessly intertwined. It does everyone a disservice to hold only one group responsible.”

Some of the new groups organizing in the name of reform, moreover, are using the same tactics as the corporate-backed political groups they criticize. Uygur’s Wolf PAC will be free to raise and spend unrestricted money, something that was not permitted through PACs before Citizens United. As a nonprofit, United Republic faces no obligation to disclose its funding sources — not unlike the new corporate-backed political nonprofits that reform advocates deplore.

At the same time, the proliferation of activists taking aim at big corporate money offers Occupy activists some tangible goals beyond simply sleeping in parks. One of United Republic’s objectives, Penniman said, is to help firm up specific short-term and long-term goals for the nascent anti-corporate-reform movement, which has yet to articulate a uniform approach to amending the Constitution.

“One of our hopes is that we’ll be able to coalesce the reform community around a common strategy for both amending the Constitution in the long haul, [and] also figuring out what the short-term victories are between now and a Constitutional amendment,” Penniman said.

His group’s goals include a “main street communications strategy” to “de-wonkify” the money and politics issue and help average Americans grasp how campaign spending affects their daily lives. The group will reach out to both political parties and is recruiting board members who are Democrats, Republicans and independents, he said.

Uygur, too, said anti-corporate sentiment transcends political party: “Everybody gets it. The tea party and Occupy Wall Street have the same core issue, which is: I don’t think these guys [in Washington, D.C.] are on the level. Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, these guys don’t represent us.”

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