Feb 062012
 

Are you one of those people who are constantly saying “there oughta be a law”? I am – which is probably why I ended up a consumer advocate.

Some pretty lofty assumptions about democracy are built into that quaint phrase, if you think about it. For one, it assumes that law is a good way to resolve disputes (as compared, say, to fists or guns). Also, that everybody will obey the law. Perhaps most obvious, when someone says, “there oughta be a law,” they’re asserting our right as Americans to make things better for ourselves by getting the legislative branch to address an issue of public importance.

Indeed, the “the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is built into the First Amendment – the same amendment that five members of the United States Supreme Court pretty much erased from the Constitution in the Citizens United case two years ago.

By now, everyone understands that by giving corporations the same First Amendment rights as humans, and then ruling that spending money to influence elections is a form of “free speech,” the Supreme Court in Citizens United unleashed a tsunami of corporate money that will drown out the voices of 99% percent of Americans in favor of the 1% who have the wealth to determine who wins elections. “Free” speech can’t compete with hundreds of millions of dollars of paid propaganda.

What’s not been much discussed is how the Supreme Court decision actually conflicts with the rest of the First Amendment: it has negated our right to petition government for a redress of grievances.

Consider another Supreme Court-imposed debacle: in 2011, the high court ruled that consumers who sue big companies in class actions can be thrown out of court and forced to go into “arbitration” – a system in which the company hires private “judges” to determine whether the company broke the law. The Federal Arbitration Act specifically says that arbitration doesn’t apply if the arbitration clause violates a state’s consumer protection law. But the Supreme Court refused to recognize that exception. The case is Concepcion v AT&T Mobility. In that lawsuit, consumers challenged AT&T for adding extra charges to the purchase of a cell phone that the company had advertised as “free.” The decision – another enormous victory for big corporations – strips American consumers of their right to hold a company accountable for rip-offs big or small.

Unlike the Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which interpreted the US Constitution, Congress could easily amend the Federal Arbitration Act to reverse the Concepcion decision. But will it? Forget about the House of Representatives: it’s controlled by corporate Republicans who are owned by the cell phone companies. (The House was close to passing a bill that would have allowed  telemarketers and debt collectors to call consumers’ cell phones with recorded messages. A huge public outcry delayed the legislation.)

But in the Democrat controlled US Senate, a bill to override the Supreme Court’s arbitration ruling has only fifteen cosponsors.

In California, we are lucky to have the ballot initiative, which allows us to take matters into our own hands when state legislators are too beholden to special interests to deal with important issues. Using the initiative process, California voters passed Proposition 103 to restrain price gouging by auto, home and business insurance companies. My colleagues at Consumer Watchdog are now proposing an initiative to put health insurance premiums under Proposition 103’s controls. But even the people’s initiative process has been corrupted by corporate money. And attempts to ban corporate interference in ballot initiative campaigns ran smack into, once again, a decision by the United States Supreme Court.

Indeed, you don’t have to be an astute observer of politics to know that corporate money has long corrupted politics. Our report, “Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America” (PDF), published in March 2009, got right to the bottom line in its title. Between 1998 and 2008, Wall Street invested $5 billion in Washington, a combination of money for lobbying and campaign contributions that won deregulation and other policy decisions that enabled the financial industry to do as it pleased. The ensuing orgy of unbridled speculation came to a halt in 2008 when the financial industry threatened to shut down the system unless they got trillions of dollars in loans, tax breaks and other taxpayer bailouts.

Laws regulating corporate spending in elections and lobbying were intended to limit the damage to democracy. Some, including me, would argue that they didn’t work anyhow. But Citizens United has eliminated any chance of righting the imbalance of political power between corporations and human beings short of changing the United States Constitution itself. We’re proposing exactly that: a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that reads “The protections of the First Amendment that apply to the spending of money on lobbying and elections, whether by contributions, expenditures or otherwise, shall extend only to human beings.” Join us right now.

About Harvey Rosenfield

Harvey Rosenfield has been fighting to protect consumers and taxpayers against rip-offs and abuse for thirty years. He’s the author of Proposition 103, the landmark insurance reform initiative, which has saved Californians more than $63 billion in insurance premiums.

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