Occupy Wall Street’s popularity with the public may be sinking, but the group’s still making inroads in Washington. On Friday, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) introduced the first piece of federal legislation directly inspired by the movement. Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy (OCCUPIED) would amend the Constitution to outlaw the use of all corporate money in elections, not only undoing the biggest changes under Citizens United but also going after the legal concept of “corporate personhood” altogether. I talked to Deutch about the OCCUPIED amendment on Friday afternoon (interview lightly edited for length and clarity).
Ted Deutch: One thing that’s been clear throughout the protests all across the country is that people are tired of a political system that they believe doesn’t respond to their needs, that doesn’t reflect the interests of the American people, and that caters to the corporations that have occupied Washington for far too long.
SK: Recent polls have shown that Occupy Wall Street’s popularity is dropping, however — by some accounts, their approval ratings are even lower than the tea party’s. So what do you think the chances of your proposal really are, given the current environment?
TD: This proposal makes good sense to anyone who reads it, whether they’ve been participating in Occupy Wall Street or whether they’re a frustrated worker who feels like the government has ignored them. . . . there’s a shared sentiment that spans the political spectrum.
I will leave it to others to figure out which way the Occupy Wall Street goes from here. What I am certain of, whether you’ve been protesting in New York City or any other of dozens of cities where people have been marching, or if you’re a senior citizen in south Florida frustrated that government right now is more concerned with the cost of Medicare and Social Security than coming up with a fair approach that expects corporations to give something back, this is the way to do it. Citizens United opened a door that’s frustrated anyone who’s looking.
SK: So corporations don’t have any right to participate in elections? Why should they be treated differently than, say, labor unions or nonprofit organizations ? Unions also benefited from Citizens United, but, as I understand it, they wouldn’t be affected by your amendment.
TD: Corporations that are formed for the purpose of earning profits do not have the constitutionally protected rights that natural citizens have. They should not spend their corporate dollars, Treasury dollars to influence outcome of elections.
[As for unions and nonprofits], the amendment gives Congress the authority to create a campaign finance system that ultimately is fair across the board . . . that gives the government back to the people. The amendment specifically reverses Citizens United in making clear that for-profit corporations shouldn’t be spending money on elections. Any other group of people, group of individuals, is going to be in same position as they are now.
SK: If there’s such overwhelming support for these kind of changes though, why not wait for the legal system to come to that conclusion?
TD: [Justice] Stevens vehemently disagreed with the position of the court, legal scholars across America have disagreed . . . but there is every reason to believe the Supreme Court may well continue down this path and move beyond Citizens United and allow corporations to contribute to candidates directly. I don’t believe the American people should wait to see if this is the direction that the Supreme Court goes. We ought to act now. It’s what the framers of the Constitution and people across America understand.
SK: Realistically speaking, what do you think the chances of this passing Congress are? Even the DISCLOSE Act, which was much more limited in scope, didn’t manage to pass the Senate last year.
TD: The reason that I am hopeful that this proposal will start to move forward is because the American people don’t want to rely upon Congress to pass a law that may just help at the margins. What they want is to return government back to the people, so that corporations don’t dictate the outcome of elections. I believe there will be a groundswell of support that moves us forward in a way that respects the American people again.