Democrats consider constitutional amendment to combat Supreme Court decision on campaign finance

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Democrats in Congress want to amend the U.S. Constitution to say free speech does not extend to corporations in response to the Supreme Court’s decision allowing freer corporate spending in political campaigns.

On Tuesday, Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Maryland Democrat, introduced an amendment to combat “the flawed ruling by the Supreme Court allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.”

The amendment will undo the Supreme Court decision and allow the government to regulate the expenditure of funds by corporations for political speech, according to a release.

“It is time we remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens,” Edwards said.

Conyers said the “idea that corporate political speech is no different than an individual citizen’s political speech was not the law when the Constitution was written.”

The proposed amendment, introduced in the House, says that the government “may regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity.” The proposal adds: “Nothing contained in this article shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.’’

In the Senate, Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote on Twitter this weekend that he is also authoring an amendment. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, jumped on the bandwagon Tuesday, offering his support for one during a committee hearing.

While Specter has been public about his intentions, he has been mum on the details. Specter spokeswoman Kate Kelly only said she expects the senator to further unveil his plans on the Senate floor in the future. She said she did not know when that would be or exactly what will be in the amendment.

This is all in response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision, released on Jan. 21, that independent expenditures by corporations on political broadcasts cannot be limited, striking down part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Republicans praised the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment.

But Specter, on the day of the ruling, wrote on Twitter that the “Court decision rejects 100 yrs of precedent and our democratic principles. To call corporate money free speech is judicial activism.”

President Barack Obama, during last week’s State of the Union address, urged “Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”

Asked if Obama would support an amendment, a spokesman, on the condition he be allowed to speak without being identified, said the White House is “broadly supportive of legislative fixes to make sure that the Citizens United decision doesn’t allow special interest money to flow unabated into the election process, but hasn’t signaled their support for specific bills yet.”

Kerry, testifying before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, said Tuesday that “some of the sharpest minds in the country are working together right now to construct language for an amendment that would solve the problem and get to the heart of the issue.”

“We must do those things quickly,” Kerry said. “But we may also need to think bigger.  I think we need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals.”

The Constitution dictates that two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of the state legislatures have to call for an amendment. To be ratified, the amendment must be approved by three-fourths of the states.

UVA politics professor Dr. Larry J. Sabato, who recently published the second edition of his work “A More Perfect Constitution,” said the chances of actually pushing through an amendment are dismal because “no constitutional amendment that is not strictly bipartisan has a chance in hell today.”

“I’d contend that in this polarized era, it is even less likely that an amendment will pass two-thirds of each congressional chamber and three-fourths of the state legislatures. That especially applies to Specter’s amendment because Democrats will perceive an advantage in ratifying it, while Republicans will be strongly opposed,” he said.

Sabato said that not counting the Bill of Rights, only 17 amendments have been ratified in 220 years, the last amendment being congressional pay raises in the 1990s.

“I spent 30 years researching this book and studying the process of every successful amendment — and looking through the 9,000 proposed amendments that failed. Not to put too fine a point on it, Senator Specter’s amendment has only a small chance of congressional passage and even less chance of ratification,” he said.

Jon Ward contributed to this story.