Sen. Kerry backs changing Constitution to deal with Supreme Court decision

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Tuesday said he’d support the uphill battle to amend the Constitution to gut the impact of a Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate campaign spending.

“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,” Kerry said during a Senate Rules Committee hearing.

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The constitutional change would require the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of the states to ratify it, a serious challenge, particularly since many Republicans support the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) is the only other senator so far to back the idea of a constitutional amendment.

In the House, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced language Tuesday amending the Constitution to allow Congress to regulate corporate spending in politics.

The two-sentence amendment does not address the prospect of unlimited union spending on independent campaign expenditures, which experts say would be another result of the decision.

“The sovereign right of the people to govern being essential to a free democracy, Congress and the States may regulate the expenditure of funds for political speech by any corporation, limited liability company, or other corporate entity,” the amendment says. “Nothing contained in this Article shall be construed to abridge the freedom of the press.’’

The watchdog group Public Citizen hailed the introduction of the proposal, arguing that it provides the necessary momentum to counter the Supreme Court’s decision.

“If history is any guide, winning a constitutional amendment will take great effort over several years,” said Public Citizen’s Robert Weissman.

“We must have a national conversation about the terms of an amendment, then draft and redraft the text in close consultation with legal scholars. And we must organize on a mass scale, federally and in the states.”

The White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have been bracing for months for the sweeping decision freeing corporations and unions of limits on independent expenditures. The decision also reverses a provision of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill barring corporations and unions from funding issue ads airing 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

Pelosi has put Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in charge of a task force that will produce limited legislation aimed at blunting the court’s ruling.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, will serve as Van Hollen’s Senate counterpart and will try to work quickly to pass a legislative package before this year’s election campaigns begin in earnest.

Most opponents of the high court’s decision see a constitutional amendment as a long-term, long-shot goal, but a new poll could bolster support for that approach or tough legislation.

The Angus Reid Opinion Poll, conducted Jan. 28-29, showed strong opposition to the Supreme Court decision across party lines. Sixty-six percent of Democrats either “moderately” or “strongly” disagreed with the ruling, but so did 63 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents.

Supporters of greater restrictions on campaign finance are urging Congress to act as soon as possible to offset the decision with legislation.

“[The court’s] terrible decision deserves as robust a response as soon as possible,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). “Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.”

Van Hollen and Schumer, with the help of several committee chairmen with jurisdiction, are working on a package that would require shareholders to vote before a corporation can spend money in elections; require companies that pay for ads supporting or opposing candidates to more clearly identify themselves in the ads; restrict the ability of companies with big government contracts to air such ads; and tighten rules prohibiting outside groups from coordinating ads with candidates.

Others, such as Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), are making an appeal for a broader legislative fix, such as passing a public financing program for federal candidates similar to the one in place for presidential elections.

The Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog organization and defender of the McCain-Feingold law, also would like the Federal Communications Commission to ensure access to airwaves by candidates. Broadcasters now must sell time to candidates at the lowest unit rate, but broadcasters can pre-empt those ads if a higher bidder is willing to pay more for the time.

“Airtime sold at the lowest unit rate is generally pre-emptible, thus forcing candidates to buy the more expensive, non-pre-emptible time to ensure they reach the targeted demographic. A new statute should ensure that once again the lowest unit rates for candidates are meaningful,” the group wrote Schumer.

At one point in Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asked whether a corporation or union would be able to buy all of the airtime before an election, preventing a candidate from being able to respond to attacks.

Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, said the Federal Communications Act requires only that broadcasters sell “reasonable” amounts of time to federal candidates.

“I’m worried in these tough economic times, when broadcasters are looking for top dollars, those [candidate] times could be squeezed out,” Murray said.
Steve Hoersting, of the Center for Competitive Politics, which supports the high court’s decision, suggested that Congress could counter any corporate advantage in buying ad time by passing laws lifting the ban on large or unlimited corporate and union contributions to candidates and parties.

“You could put yourself in a position where you can afford your campaigns more than you already can under existing constraints,” he said.
Congress spent years passing laws shutting down unlimited “soft-money” contributions and should not return to it now because members are scared of the new power of corporations and unions, Wertheimer responded.

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“The notion that we ought to solve this influence-buying corruption problem by opening up the door to more influence-buying and corruption is not what we need,” he said.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who supports the Citizens United ruling, argued that McCain-Feingold has done little if anything to stop the flow of money into politics. Campaigns raised and spent $1.6 billion in the 1998 presidential and congressional elections; 10 years later that total increased to $5.2 billion.

“Somehow the goal of taking big money out of politics was not achieved by passing that law,” he said.