I happened to be New York City on other business, but I could not avoid the lure of Zuccotti Park. So I got some poster board and markers, crafted a homemade sign and took the C train down to the park to talk to the New Yorkers camped out there. My sign read, "I'm a campaign finance lawyer. Ask me about Citizens United + its solutions." I was there for 2.5 hours. I expected to sit in silence the whole time. Instead every few minutes someone would sheepishly come up and ask, "ok, what's Citizens United?"
On one hand, I was a little taken aback that this crowd had not heard of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that gave corporations the First Amendment right to spend unlimited dollars in American elections. On the other hand, the people in the park I met today were eager to learn and listen and share their thoughts.
Many were shocked at the idea that disclosure loopholes would leave corporate political spending legally hidden. (They do.) Many were surprised to hear that the U.K. had different corporate rules about political spending than the U.S. does. The U.K. requires disclosure to shareholders of past spending and a shareholder vote on future spending. "Why don't we do that here?" A grandmotherly woman asked me. I said, "well we are trying. We have a bill in both houses of Congress."
A few of the people I met were depressingly resigned to the inevitability of more corporate money in politics. As one gentleman who had run for Congress said to me: "money is like water and the Supreme Court said we can't stop the flow." But lots of the people I met still had hope and were scribbling down policy suggestions. "What was the name of that bill you were talking about in Congress?" one earnest young man with a beard asked. "Shareholder Protection Act." I responded. "And what as the one that got defeated by one vote in the Senate?" "DISCLOSE Act" I chimed in. "Can you suggest anything I should read?" I said, "The Rolling Stone article on 'the War on Voting.'"
It was an encouraging experience to be there on the day the protest turned one month old. The exchange of ideas is brewing. Lots of people wanted to school me on what was wrong with the Federal Reserve. One really wanted me to vote for Ron Paul. But it wasn't a shouting match. I told them my view of money in politics and the solutions I've been working on lately like petitioning the SEC for a rule change to require transparency of corporate political expenditures. I got lots of thumbs up and smiles. Occupying Wall St. was a lovely way to spend a sunny fall afternoon talking with my fellow citizens.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is an assistant professor at Stetson University and the co-author of "Shareholder-Authorized Corporate Political Spending in the United Kingdom."