By Ruth Conniff
Sixteen states, more than 500 communities, two million Americans, and now the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, are on-the-record in support of amending the constitution to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in Citizens United v. FEC and related cases and to restore the power of people in elections.
On July 10, a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve SJR 19, a constitutional amendment to restore the authority of Congress and states to regulate money in elections, paving the way for a floor vote on the amendment later this year.
The vote was seen as a victory for many in the movement that started calling for amending the Constitution four years ago, after the 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to nearly unlimited political spending. Thanks to the efforts of Public Citizen, People for the American Way, Free Speech for People, Common Cause and many others, an effort that was once dismissed as impossible has gained legitimacy, with on-the-ground organizing in towns, cities, and states forcing political leaders in D.C. to take action.
Money has played an increasingly powerful rule in every election that has been held since Citizens United.
In 2014, a midterm election, the level of outside spending could match that of the 2012 presidential elections.
With nearly four months to go before election day, already 114 Super PACs -- a byproduct of Citizens United that didn't exist before 2010 -- have spent $77.8 million on federal races, a number that will rise with next week's filings. Countless other non-disclosing "dark money" nonprofits have also spent millions on elections; David Koch's 501(c)(4) Americans for Prosperity, for example, plans to spend $125 million this election cycle.
Undisclosed election spending is three times higher in 2014 than at the same point in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For example, in the hotly-contested North Carolina U.S. Senate race between Democrat Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger Thom Tillis, 65 percent of the ads were never reported to the Federal Elections Commission, according to the Sunlight Foundation, since the ads are run by nonprofits and omit terms like "vote for" or "vote against."
“The Supreme Court has left us one option for real reform," says the amendment's lead sponsor Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico. "We must pass an amendment that will restore integrity to our elections, so that a billionaire in one state cannot have more influence than working families in the other forty-nine. That is not the equality envisioned by our founders, and is in direct contradiction to the kind of democracy they intended to create.”
The amendment that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee is not as far-reaching as the one proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, which the Center for Media and Democracy has endorsed along with supporting SJR 19. That amendment has broader support within the Senate and its passage represents an important milestone in getting Senators to join together in rejecting the Supreme Court’s extraordinary intervention in U.S. elections.
Meanwhile, one of the grassroots groups urging amending the Constitution to eliminate corporate rights, Move to Amend, has criticized the Senate vote as not striking out the notion of "corporate rights," although there is time to rally support for a broader amendment before any amendment is put to a vote by the people.
The amendment still needs 67 votes in the Senate -- which would require the support of every Democrat and 12 Republicans -- and then pass with a two-thirds majority in the Republican-controlled House. A majority vote would mark a substantial breakthrough in the path for overturning the Court.
Although GOP leaders in Washington have opposed the amendment and conflated unlimited spending with "free speech," average Republican voters appear to feel differently. According to a November 2013 poll, seven in 10 American voters -- many of whom are Republicans -- think our election system is “biased in favor of the candidate with the most money.”
Montana, for example, gave Mitt Romney a nearly 14 point margin of victory over Obama -- but those same voters, on that same election day, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum calling for a "level playing field in campaign spending" and a constitutional amendment "establishing that corporations are not human beings entitled to constitutional rights."
Heavily Republican communities across the country have similarly favored amendments to limit the role of money in politics.
“We want to ban the billionaires on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “The Soroses and the Steyers will be just as banned as the Kochs and the others.”
The amendment reads:
SECTION 1: To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
SECTION 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
SECTION 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.