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Corporations are people? DFL can’t even muster votes to protest

Democrats decry a Supreme Court resolution that lets corporations give more campaign cash, but a DFL state rep can’t get his colleagues to object.

Nowhere is the difficulty more clear than in the Minnesota House, where partisanship, fear and apathy have blocked Rep. Ray Dehn’s proposal merely asking the U.S. Congress to support an amendment.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people when it comes to speech. 

The Citizens United ruling, buttressed by the Supreme’s recent McCutcheon decision, opened the floodgates for ever-more money to pour into elections. But it also inspired organizations nationwide to counter the court’s 5-4 decision with a constitutional amendment that essentially would end “corporate personhood.’’

The fight-back effort underscores how difficult it is to amend the Constitution.

Nowhere is the difficulty more clear than in the Minnesota House, where partisanship, fear and apathy have blocked Rep. Ray Dehn’s proposal merely asking the U.S. Congress to support an amendment.

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Last year, the Minnesota Senate supported a stronger measure calling for a Constitutional convention. But last week, when the Minneapolis DFLer counted noses in his caucus, he came up about 10 votes short.

“I haven’t totally given up,’’ said Dehn. “I’ll keep talking to people. But, with only two weeks left in the session … .’’

An arduous journey

As Dehn discussed the dynamics last week, the Minnesota Wild hockey team was about to play its deciding playoff game against Colorado. The media was filled with stories, and chat lines, tweets, blogs, radio talk shows were crammed with hockey.

Millions of dollars impacting democracy? Ho hum.

“I understand the power of pro sports,’’ Dehn said. “You have the stresses of daily life, we’re coming out of a terrible recession; people need a place to relax, have fun. Pro sports have become the modern day form of release … .”

People such as Dehn and Roseville DFL Sen. John Marty have embarked on a long, arduous journey that seemingly has little chance of success. The great hope is that over time, a national movement builds that will demand a future Congress’s attention.

Time out for some basics civics: There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One requires that two-thirds of the U.S. House and Senate send an amendment to the states. The other process, which has never been used, requires that two-thirds of the states call a Constitutional Convention to draft an amendment. Either way, 75 percent of the states, through their legislatures, must approve the amendment.

The task is huge, which explains why there are only 27 amendments.

The amendment-by-convention approach would require 33 states to call a convention and 38 legislatures to approve it. In this “anti-corporate personhood’’ effort, 16 states have passed resolutions that would lead to an amendment that would overturn Citizens United.

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Rep. Ray Dehn
Rep. Ray Dehn

Additionally, in most states that have passed resolutions, there has been bipartisan support. An amendment, it should be noted, would not only limit and better disclose corporate contributions, but also union money.

“I’m not sure why it’s become partisan here,’’ Dehn said. “I do know that ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council) opposes. But there have to be other reasons as well.’’

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he doubts that any GOP members would support the resolution.

“I admire his [Dehn’s] passion,’’ Davids said, “but for now, the Supreme Court ruling is the law of the land. I think the best thing is to bring other cases forward [through the court process] and see how that goes.’’

Laughing, Davids added, “After what happened to us, I’m a little nervous about amendments in general.’’

He was referring to the GOP-inspired amendments opposing gay marriage and pushing voter IDs. Minnesotans rejected both, and many believe the GOP lost legislative majorities in the House and Senate over the efforts.

However, two states that have passed the resolution, Colorado and Montana, asked voters directly through the petition-and-referendum process. In both cases, the resolutions had huge public support, passing with more than 70 per cent of the vote.

DFL can’t back a weaker proposal

But of course, given its Minnesota legislative majority, the DFL could pass Dehn’s resolution, which to many would not seem all that controversial.

The resolution states, in part: “Clarifying that the rights protected under the Constitution are the rights of natural persons and not the rights of artificial entities and that spending money to influence elections is not speech under the First Amendment.’’

Unlike last year’s successful Minnesota Senate resolution, the House version would not call for a Constitutional convention if Congress doesn’t act.

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Dehn eliminated the convention option because pols of both parties fear that convening such a session could fundamentally change the entire Constitution.

Essentially, then, Dehn is left with a “please’’ resolution to the currently gridlocked Congress. And still he can’t get the votes in his own caucus.

Some DFL legislators simply refuse to support any resolution, apparently believing such things are beneath their dignity. Others, in an election year, fear unintended controversy and union concerns. Others likely aren’t sure just what the resolution means.

Dehn, like Marty, is profoundly fearful of the influence of money in campaigns.

“The way we’re headed, we’re going to have about 80 families in this country determining the outcome of elections,’’ Dehn said.

The money even pours into Minnesota legislative races.

Under law, there’s supposed to be a $60,000 cap on how much money a candidate can raise in an election. Individuals can give no more than $1,000 to legislative candidates. Just $12,500 can be raised from “large donations” and from PACs and lobbyists.

Yet, Dehn said, there were legislative races in which more than $500,000 came pouring into districts from obscure sources. These were “independent expenditures,’’ typically in the form of attack ads. Those attacks, from both sides, have already begun showing up in mailboxes of voters in some competitive districts.

In national races, nearly $1 billion in independent expenditure money was spent in 2012, half of that in the presidential race.

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“We are moving from a democracy to a plutocracy,’’ says Marty. “What we’re doing is a difficult effort. But many of us think our democracy is worth it.’’

Effective Democracy is a year-long series of occasional reports supported by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, as part of a grant made to MinnPost and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.