A megaphone made of cash. That’s what Stephen Colbert sought when he created his super PAC in a satirical dismantling of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.
The historic January 2010 ruling said political spending is a form or protected speech, and it’s a violation of the First Amendment for the government to limit cash laid out to sway elections. It paved the way for massive political action committees that can spend as much as they want as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate. Colbert used the lack of regulation to seek contributions that paid for absurd attack ads, including one that accused Mitt Romney of being a serial killer.
Steven Robert Allen*, then Common Cause New Mexico executive director, penned an opinion piece for the Alibi on big-money politics. He wrote: “Citizens United was the worst in a string of Supreme Court decisions that dramatically strengthened the political hands of powerful industries and lobbyists at the expense of ordinary citizens” [Guest Editorial, “Kaaa-ching” July 14-20, 2011].
In New Mexico, pushback from activists led the Legislature to pass a landmark memorial this year demanding Congress amend the Constitution and overturn the ruling. Aside from the high court second-guessing itself, amending the constitution is the only way to overturn a ruling. The state’s House passed the memorial 38-29 on Jan. 31, and the Senate concurred with a 20-9 vote on Feb. 11. A memorial does not require signature from Gov. Susana Martinez.
The stance made New Mexico the second state in the union to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling. Hawaii was the first. Rep. Mimi Stewart, who sponsored the measure in the House, says grassroots organizations worked hard to make sure lawmakers understood why the issue matters. “This memorial has been introduced all over the country,” she says, and to have New Mexico be among the first to pass it in both houses is thrilling. “We’re usually last,” she says.
Tom Dent organized the local instance of Occupy the Courts, a protest staged around the country this year on the anniversary of the ruling. Dent is the event coordinator for Albuquerque’s chapter of Move to Amend, a national organization with Citizens United in its crosshairs. He says the Legislature’s stance is the direct result of citizen action. “There are a lot of groups that deserve credit for getting both memorials passed,” he says. And the list is long, including: Common Cause, the SouthWest Organizing Project and the Native American Voter Alliance.
“It’s a great statement from the people,” he says. “It’s a tool, and it’s something we have to build on.”
Big-money campaigns are part of the public consciousness right now, says Rep. Stewart. “We’re seeing more and more unregulated money coming into our political system.”
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich waged an expensive battle for Florida, with Romney and his super PAC spending an estimated $15 million, and Gingrich and his super PAC dropping about $4 million. Super PAC spending overall at the end of January was about four times what it was at the same point during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“People are astonished at how much money they’re raising for relatively few votes,” Stewart says.
*Allen was also once editor in chief of the Alibi.