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Friday, October 28, 2016

by Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica.

In a gesture probably more symbolic than practical, the Senate may soon take up a constitutional amendment to give Congress and states the power to regulate political contributions and spending.

At a Senate Rules Committee hearing Wednesday on the influence of so-called “dark money” groups, nonprofits that don’t have to report their donors for election spending, Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Democrats would soon bring the amendment up for a vote.

The amendment, introduced last year by Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, would allow Congress to limit contributions and spending by campaigns, as well as by SuperPACs and dark money groups. States would be allowed to pass their own regulations.

The amendment could be the only way to reverse the impact of Supreme Court decisions that have struck down some limits on contributions by corporations, unions, nonprofits and individuals to both outside groups and, more recently, to political parties.

“It’s now crystal clear to me that an amendment to the Constitution is necessary to allow meaningful campaign finance rules,” Udall said on Wednesday.

The amendment has little chance of passing, however, as it needs the support of 67 senators. Republicans are unlikely to vote for it. Many conservatives see limits on campaign finance as limits on free speech. Conservatives also have benefited more from the gusher of outside money so far.

Predictably, the hearing on Wednesday reinforced the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats on campaign finance.

Schumer, Udall and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Democrats on the committee who were at the hearing, called for new campaign finance restrictions. And Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who led the hearing and who often votes with Democrats, was particularly critical of dark money groups, the social welfare nonprofits and trade associations that can spend money on elections without disclosing their donors.

“In Maine, we have town meetings every spring,” King said. “Nobody’s allowed to go to a Maine town meeting with a bag over their head.”

But Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the committee, spoke out against new regulations as restrictions on free speech, pointing to a plaque he had brought displaying the text of the First Amendment.

“Let’s stop this fool’s errand of speech regulation,” he said.

At issue isn’t simply speech — it’s whether who’s behind that speech should be identified. Disclosure is something that many courts have said is paramount. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, for example, said that corporations, unions and nonprofits could spend unlimited money on outside election ads. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the influx of that money would not corrupt elections because of laws requiring outside groups to disclose their donors.

ProPublica and other news outlets have written extensively, however, about the many ways groups have used to avoid this kind of transparency. In 2012 alone, social welfare nonprofits and trade associations dumped more than $310 million into the election. Who are the donors? Who knows?

As the Center for Responsive Politics reported Wednesday, the 2014 election is so far shaping up to involve more dark money than any election to date. And Democrats are narrowing the gap with Republicans, who have typically spent much more through dark money groups.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the other Republican who attended the hearing Wednesday, addressed the disclosure issue, at least partly. He called for allowing unlimited contributions to candidates followed by immediate disclosure of who gave the money. But Cruz did not say whether he also supported such disclosures by dark money groups.

A slate of campaign finance experts testified before the committee, including former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the dissenting opinion in the Citizens United case before his retirement in 2010 and recently authored a book proposing a constitutional amendment to limit political spending.

In an interview with ProPublica after the hearing, King said he imagined Democrats would try to bring Udall’s amendment to the floor this summer but acknowledged that passing it would be difficult. He said he is more focused on passing legislation to require more campaign finance disclosure.

“I know there are Republicans who are interested in this issue and have expressed it,” he said.

He declined, however, to name them.

Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund via Flickr

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  • Joyce

    “Republicans are unlikely to vote for it. Many conservatives see limits on campaign finance as limits on free speech”. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!
    Campaign finance is not free speech. WORDS are free speech. Since when is it acceptable to pay for our elected officials? Only the republiCONS think this is acceptable. They do anything and everything to make the playing field uneven for all American citizens. The only way to stop these imbeciles is to go out and VOTE! We can stop these morons but we have to make it happen. VOTE, VOTE, VOTE! Please don’t give up on the only voice the little people have. If we like-minded people vote these scumbags out of office, our country could and would return to the great country it once was, filled with opportunities for all, not just the rich! Make the effort, take a few minutes out of your day, and get to the polling booths. It’s the only way we can win.

  • bstockinger

    Hiding what you contribute must mean you don’t want anyone to know what you support. So if no one knows what you support how can that be free speech? Free speech assumes everyone knows who is doing the talking. People like the KKK, bank robbers, Russians occupying other countries, etc try to hide their faces. Why do Americans exercising their right to free speech need to hid their faces and names from the rest of us?

  • Mark Forsyth

    What the author of this article,Theodoric Myer, fails to illustrate is the fact that there is an alternative to a congressional vote that can be used to both call for and ratify a Constitutional Amendment.
    To guard against oppressive government of any kind,the authors of the U.S.Constitution sought to establish institutional checks and balances. In framing the Constitution as the fundamental embodiment of such safeguards,the Constitutional Convention,at the invitation of the Continental Congress was called.That is the last time a “federal Constitutional Convention” was convened in the United States.
    One of the main reasons for the 1787 Convention was that the Articles of Confederation required the unanimous consent of all 13 states for the national government to take action.This system had proved unworkable,and the newly written Constitution sought to address this problem.
    As a result we have a way to deal with offensive and or objectionable legislation by way of state legislature. 34 states are required to enact Article 5 call for amendment proposal convention and 38 states required for ratification of any new amendment.
    Bottom line is that the jig is not yet up and the show aint over ’til the fat lady sings.Despite the efforts of the corporate fascists to co-opt our government,WE THE PEOPLE are not done-in by a long shot.

    • ThomasBonsell

      It’s not that easy.

      Article V says that two-thirds of the states can apply to Congress to convene a convention to propose amendments. But it still takes two-thirds of Congress to call for the convention, just as it takes two-thirds of Congress to propose amendments of its own. States can not convene a convention on their own.

      The bottom line is Congress still has to call for the convention, and this Congress would never do that even if we had 100 percent of the states asking for a convention.

      • Mark Forsyth

        Thomas,I think maybe a more thorough reading or understanding of the Article might be required.
        The Article expressly states: The Congress,whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary,shall propose Amendments to this Constitution or,”on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States,shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments”,which in either Case,shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes,as Part of this Constitution,when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States.
        When the congress fails to vote then the option to go through the state legislatures kicks in and congress by law set down in the Constitution in the above article,is “required” to call a convention.That is the checks and balances going to work.Congress cannot refuse the will of those Legislatures without being in violation of the law.
        I allow for the possibility that my interpretation may be incorrect,but how can congress legally refuse to do what is set down in the Constitution when the conditions have been met? It seems to me that they have no choice having already refused to vote on the issue in question.

        • ThomasBonsell

          The Founders were quite intelligent men. If they had in mind that Congress was “required” to call an amending convention they would have said so, They argued over and discussed virtually every word that went into the Constitution, so I doubt they would have made such an oversight.

          I believe they used the word “shall” to allow Congress some leeway on its dtries and requirements.

          • Mark Forsyth

            That could be so Tom,but don’t you think that if the congress refuses to vote on an amendent proposal,thus beginning the process of legislatures seeking an amendment and meeting the number required,that it disenfranchises the voters who desire that amendment and are represented by those states legislatures,if congress refuses to call the convention? You say that congress has no requirement to do so,I say they do.So who is right? You can bet your ass that folks of every political stripe would be pissed off if they are prevented from having a vote on an amendment that the majority desires.
            This has bothered me all day and I have done some further research on it and have concluded that whatever the true intention of Article 5 may be, that it does not prevent a majority of the states legislatures from making law if the congress refuses to do so.
            I don’t know about you,but I am confident that the authors of the Constitution did not intend for the will and desire of the people[who are in effect “the government” to be frustrated in their efforts to pass the laws that they want and serves the greatest good.It just doesn’t make sense that the people would fight a revolution for the right of self determination and upon winning that right,proceed to set legislation in place that prevents them from free exercise of that hard won right.It is counter productive.

          • ThomasBonsell

            I don’t see this Congress caring one iota of what the people want or think.

            The people, by a huge margin, want the minimum wage raised. The GOP just killed an effort to do that. The majority of people want some sensible gun-control regulation and Congress recently defeated such a proposal. This Congress wouldn’t even allow a study of how gun violence affects the healthcare system of the nation. The people want money out of politics; that is unlikely to happen.

            The Republican Party is trying to disenfranchise millions of Americans because they don’t vote “right.” Thank God we have some honest judges who are negating these anti-American laws.

            The typical member of Congress doesn’t give a damn how many Americans he/she disenfranchises as long as the majority in his/her district or state approves of that.

            If we had a provision where the states could just propose, then pass, a constitutional amendment this do-nothing Congress could be passed by. But, the Founders just came out of a situation in which the states exercised the supreme power under the Articles of Confederation and wanted no more of state supremacy or overriding the federal government. So we are stuck with what we got even though we sorely need an amendment undoing disastrous court decisions like Citizen United and the latest McCutcheon decision.

            If Congress refused to vote on a state proposal who or what institution could force it to act? There is no way a Supreme Court decision can be enforced by the court; we have just decided to abide by those decisions. A court decision just says the judicial branch reuses to enforce the law.

            And most Americans of all political stripes are already pissed off, but that doesn’t motivate Congress to do its job.

          • Mark Forsyth

            I agree with much of what you say Tom,but if it were absolutely impossible to pass an amendment by way of state legislature,then I doubt that we would have Senators such as Jon Tester of Montana and Chuck Schumer of New York leading the way for states to call for an amendment. Before this time last year there were already 14 states on board.
            While we have a great deal of bad shit to get by in this country I still think we can get it done.Remember,the Wright Brothers didn’t get their plane off the ground by thinking ” it’ll never fly.”

        • FredAppell

          You’re right, the Legislatures of 2/3’s of the states must call for a Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Amendment or Amendments that’s proposed by the states legislature are then ratified through the Legislatures of 3/4’s of the states. To my understanding, the legislatures cannot unilaterally call for a convention, it has to be done through the electorate petitioning the the states Legislature. I hope this helps.

          • Mark Forsyth

            Agreed.I contend that once the congress refuses to vote on an amendment proposal that they then cannot obstruct the legal process of a majority of state legislatures to ratify an amendment that then becomes law.

  • Haley Schmitterbach

    The past century of centralization has undermined the foundations of morality and liberty to the point where civilization’s greatest threats arise from the ignorance institutionalized within its very own central governments.

    • Allan Richardson

      Not merely centralized, but state and local governments, which can often be MORE corrupt, because there is less publicity over a smaller area about what they are doing. Many of the state governments based in small capital cities, such as Albany, Springfield, Baton Rouge, Tallahassee, etc. are more corrupt than those based in large metropolitan capitals such as Denver, Nashville, Austin, Atlanta, because there is a smaller local press, which has less reach over the whole state.

      Georgia seems to be an exception, possibly because legislators from outside Atlanta can tell their base voters to ignore anything that comes out of that “liberal urban” Atlanta Journal Constitution, while their hometown press, such as the Marietta Daily Journal, tends to be on the side of the incumbents.

      Sometimes, the influence of the central government can help to EXPOSE and STOP state corruption, or state human rights violation, as in the 1960s when federal agents were sometimes in a “civil war” against Klan-dominated state governments to protect FROM their state, those citizens the “majority” of the state did not want to protect.