< Proposing a Constitutional Amendment to End Corporate Personhood

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

The Occupy movement loudly decries the power of corporate money in politics, a power amplified by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment, conferring the free speech rights of people on corporations. Thus, in last year's Citizens United ruling, the Court, on free speech grounds, granted corporations nearly unlimited freedom to spend on election advertising.

This week Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern decided to try something drastic and most likely futile to stop the deluge. He called for a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people. Congressman, welcome to On the Media.

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

Happy to be with you.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, you're the House Minority Whip, but you can't whip the majority. The odds are, and you know it, that this will fail to get out of committee, much less ratification by the states. So what are you up to?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

At a very minimum, I’m up to trying to force a debate in this country on the fact that corporations are gaining more power than average people. People have the right to free speech, people who work in corporations have the right to free speech.

But corporations are not people. They’re artificial entities which we, the people, create. And as such, we govern them, not the other way around. Corporations can now donate to campaigns in -  in an unlimited way. That’s not good for our democracy.

BOB GARFIELD:

This is a bill that might have been penned by Occupy Wall Street. Citizens United could be seen as the ultimate case in point for those who believe that our inalienable rights as individuals have been usurped by the man. Was this legislation inspired by those protests or just kind of a product of the same zeitgeist?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

Well, I think it – I think it’s both. I mean, I have to be honest with you, I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has been refreshing. And I think part of their frustration is my frustration, that corporations have too much power in politics. And it’s not just the Citizens United case. Recently, a – a federal judge blocked the Food and Drug Administration from requiring tobacco companies to place graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, arguing that the cigarette makers had the right to free speech. This is crazy. [LAUGHS]

Look, I – I want businesses to, to be successful, I want corporations to be successful, but I don't want corporations to be equated with people.

BOB GARFIELD:

Is this a - an act of principle or just a political tactic? No, it's an act of principle. I’m not into political tactics. I will admit to you that the chances –

[OVERTALK]

BOB GARFIELD:

I’m sorry, I have t – I’m sorry. [LAUGHS] You are the House Minority Whip. I refuse to accept your assertion that you are not into political tactics.

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

I guess we need to define whether political tactics have principles or not. I mean, this is not out there just to help democratic candidates. I want Republicans to co-sponsor this too. And I think there are some Republicans out there who also agree that corporations have too much power in our government.

BOB GARFIELD:

In fact, some of them are in the Tea Party.

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

And, and – you know, and my hope is that those Tea Party conservatives who claim that they value the Constitution will join with me in this effort. This would apply not just to corporations, it would apply to unions as well.

The problem is that the leadership down here is very much influenced by these big corporate entities. And now with the Citizens United case opening the floodgates so that corporations have even more of a voice in our political system, you’re gonna see Washington respond less and less to the concerns of average Americans.

This, I hope, will begin a debate here in Congress, a debate that the Occupy Wall Street movement people are talking about. People are talking about the fact that corporations have undue influence in this country. Washington is not.

BOB GARFIELD:

One final thing. Let's just divorce ourselves from reality for a moment –

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

Okay [LAUGHS].

BOB GARFIELD:

- and imagine that this bill [LAUGHS] is passed by two-thirds of the House and then ratified by 38 states. Now, the last amendment to do that, the 27 Amendment, required [LAUGHS] 202 years to get the 38th state. Exxon Mobil could elect a lot of presidents in [LAUGHS] 202 years, and you would probably be in the twilight of your career.

[McGOVERN LAUGHS]

Is this gonna go the way of the couple of hundred other proposed amendments, or is something more going to take place?

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

I'd like – I’d like there to be an up or down vote. I’d like the American people to know where members of Congress stand on this issue, Republicans and Democrats. But if it went to the states, I think this is popular, you know, with Democrats. I think it’s popular with Republicans and Independents. People get it!

The American people are way ahead of the Congress. There’s only two ways to change the Citizens United ruling. One is to get a new Supreme Court that will interpret the Constitution differently.

Or the other is do a constitutional amendment. Either way is fine with me, but I'm not gonna bet on the fact that the Supreme Court's gonna change anytime soon. So I think we ought to go this route.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right. Congressman, thank you very much.

CONGRESSMAN JIM McGOVERN:

Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Congressman Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts.