Jim McGovern’s war on the Constitution

by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
April 25, 2012

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US REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN, a Worcester Democrat, generated some unwanted controversy two years ago when he publicly declared: “The Constitution is wrong.”

The context was a discussion of campaign finance during a debate between McGovern and his Republican challenger, Marty Lamb. “A lot of the campaign-finance laws we’ve passed have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” McGovern said. “I think the Constitution is wrong. I don’t think money … equals free speech. I don’t think corporations should have the same equality as a regular voter.”

Critics pounced, a minor storm erupted, and a day later McGovern took his words back. A slip of the tongue, he explained — he’d meant to say “court decision,” not “Constitution.” His problem wasn’t with the Bill of Rights, it was with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which restored the right of corporations to engage in political free speech.

But McGovern’s problem, it turns out, is with the Bill of Rights. He objects to the way it safeguards fundamental rights — such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances — not only when citizens act as lone individuals, but also when they unite as corporations in order to pool their assets and act more efficiently.

Like many on the left, McGovern has gone batty on the subject of “corporate personhood.” This is a perfectly commonplace, centuries-old legal construct that makes it possible for individuals organized as a group to carry out their affairs effectively. Because corporations are legal “persons,” for example, they can rent property without requiring the signature of every shareholder on every lease. They can be sued in court as single entities, without obliging plaintiffs to go after tens of thousands of individual defendants. They can be taxed. They can enter into contracts. They can register patents.

What infuriates many liberals is that corporations can also express political views, spending money to take sides in contested elections. “Corporations are not people,” scowled McGovern at a Democratic forum last week. “They do not breathe. They do not have children. They do not die in war. They are artificial entities which we the people create and, as such, we govern them, not the other way around.”

So the congressman proposes to strip corporations of all constitutional liberties and guarantees.

McGovern has introduced a “People’s Rights Amendment,” which would explicitly limit all rights protected by the Constitution to “natural persons.” All “corporate entities,” on the other hand, would be subject to any laws and regulations that lawmakers “deem reasonable.” At last week’s forum House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed the crusade to exclude corporations from the Constitution’s safeguards.

It is hard to overstate how radical and dangerous the People’s Rights Amendment would be. It would overturn Citizens United, all right — along with much of the freedom Americans have always taken for granted.

All of them would lose their constitutional rights, including freedom of speech and of the press, if US Rep. Jim McGovern’s “People’s Rights Amendment” were adopted.

Under McGovern’s proposal, corporations — for-profit and nonprofit alike — would have no more rights than legislators chose to give them. Congress could ban ExxonMobil and R.J. Reynolds from commenting on any public issue, and they would have no recourse to the First Amendment. But it isn’t only Big Oil and Big Tobacco that could be censored with impunity. So could Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association. So could the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Museum of Fine Arts. So could innumerable universities, charities, churches, small businesses, and government watchdogs. And so, of course, could most newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and book publishers. Corporations of every kind would lose their constitutional defenses. Vast swaths of American life would be permanently vulnerable to the whims and vendettas of politicians.

And what is true of First Amendment rights would be true of all the others: Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, due process under law, the right to trial by jury — corporations could be stripped of them all.

McGovern and Pelosi may honestly imagine that mutilating the Constitution in this way will make American democracy more wholesome and less corrupt. What it would really do is empower the political class to a degree never before seen in our history. Far from reinvigorating the dream of the Founding Fathers, the People’s Rights Amendment would transform it into a nightmare.

The Constitution is wrong,” McGovern said in 2010. Maybe so. The alternative he’s proposing is far — far — worse.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is

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1 Response to THE BOSTON VIRUS, NO. 89

  1. Curt Stoller says:

    Mr. McGovern’s war on the U.S. Constitution via his “People’s Rights Amendment” is wrong in so many ways that it would take a book to cover them all.

    Most of the people who first came to America did so to escape governments that lacked any checks and balances to their powers. Even people coming to America today, legally or illegally come for exactly the same reason. You could say they come here because they are poor, but that begs the question. Why are they poor? They are poor because the governments of their home countries make it impossible for them to make money. They are poor because their home governments, with unchecked powers, are bad for business. Sadly these people including the newest arrivals are coming at a time when the United States of America is seeking unchecked power that is bad for business.

    Business has become a dirty word and big business has become an even dirtier word. A retired low level civil servant leaves home to stand in front of a bank on Wall Street carrying a sign condemning big business. That’s what the media shows. What the media doesn’t show is that this women retired at age 45 because of a pension plan that allows her to collect 80% of her highest salary for the rest of her life. As she no longer pays into the pension fund and no longer has to pay certain taxes and take certain deductions including Social Security, her real income can actually come to 101% of the income she made while she worked. She has a generous health plan on top of that. Now if we were to pry into her retirement investments we would see in addition to bonds, a range of stocks from companies like General Electric, Exxon-Mobil, IBM, Boeing, Merck Pharmaceutical, Microsoft, Walmart and so on. It turns out our little protester has her hands deep in the pockets of “big business.” In fact, millions of ordinary people are “owners” of these “evil” big businesses.

    When you say that business shouldn’t be seen as a legal person under the U.S. Constitution, you are saying not only that a highly paid CEO should suffer, you are saying that millions of ordinary people who have freely invested in these companies should not have a voice in political life. The free market in economics provides checks and balances to totalitarian government economics just as free elections do in government politics.

    Now socialists as “experts” don’t like anyone to get in the way of their supposed technical expertise in all matters. Secretly they would like to outlaw elections. And just as secretly they would like to nationalize business. If they cannot own the means of production, then completely control it.

    Last night on television there was a documentary on the Banking crisis. Basically the entire program had a leftward slant although conservatives were given some time for token comments. But one thing emerged during the program: intentionally or by oversight. It was the fact that candidate Obama was running two shows in the “circus” crisis at the same time. On the one hand he was being privately briefed by insiders and was very clear that he did not want to inherit a depression economy. He put himself forward as a knight in shinning armor working behind the scenes to save the big banks who he hoped would reciprocate with campaign donations. But in another ring of the circus, the media spotlight presented candidate Obama as shaming the big banks and big companies for greed. He was working to prop up the banks and winning rich friends in the process while simultaneously portraying banks and big business as evil to his supporters.

    Socialists spread the false idea that economics is a zero sum situation. This is both an overly narrow perspective and wrong. The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. Bill Gates did not rob the poor to create his great company. He did not take a slice of pie from the starving poor for his own dinner table. The truth is that he made the pie bigger. And he made the pie bigger for everyone! He increased the wealth of the entire United States.

    Another socialist myth is that the rich are rich by exploiting the poor in other countries. Let’s take a look at that. Perhaps the poorest place on earth is sub-Saharan Africa. Do you see a lot of businesses trying to exploit it?

    If business and free markets are evil, why has the introduction of free-markets in the centrally controlled nations of India and China raised both the national wealth of those countries and raised the average wealth of every level of citizenry in those nations including those at the very bottom level? Allowing free market business into those countries did more to alleviate poverty than all the central planning of decades of so-called experts.

    Mr. McGovern’s plan is bad for America. Business is the one area where people are grouped together in sufficient number to provide real checks and blanaces on out of control government. McGovern’s plan only leads us into an even greater totalitarianism.

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