By Matthew Reichbach
Committees in both the Senate and House have approved memorials that call for Congress to pass and send back to the states for ratification an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn the controversial and unpopular 5 to 4 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court in 2010.
The Citizens United decision allows corporations to contribute an unlimited amount of money to groups that support or oppose candidates. It swept away decades of campaign finance law aimed at reining in the influence of money in politics.
This is a tradition of reform that dates back as far as the Tillman Act of 1907 that was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt and banned direct corporate contributions in federal election campaigns.
Because this Supreme Court decision now trumps anything that Congress could do on its own, a constitutional amendment is the only recourse. Seven times previously in our nation’s history, the constitutional amendment route has been used to reverse Supreme Court decisions.
The most prominent example is probably the Fourteenth Amendment that was needed to overrule the pre-Civil War era Dred Scott decision, which enshrined Chief Justice Roger Taney’s constitutional interpretation that said black people were not, and could not become, citizens of the United States or enjoy any of the privileges and immunities of citizenship.
Fast forward to 2012 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. On Thursday the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted to give HM4 a “Do Pass” recommendation, sending it to the House floor. It passed on 3-2 party line vote with Democrats in support and both Republicans voting against.
Friday morning, two Citizens United memorials moved forward with bipartisan support as the Senate Rules Committee unanimously gave a “Do Pass” to SM3 and SJM24. Two Republican Senators joined with the five Democrats in support of the two measures which now move on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sens. William Burt (R-Alamogordo) and Stuart Ingle (R-Portales) later changed their votes to vote against the memorials. The official vote is 5-2.
“I heard all the time from my constituents and the public in general about the lack of confidence in our political system,” Rep. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), the sponsor of the House memorial, said during the hearing. “And really the biggest complaint is money in politics.”
Sen. Steve Fischmann (D-Las Cruces), the sponsor of the Senate memorial, said that he invests in some mutual funds who could use that money to spread messages that he does not agree with and that they are “usurping” his free speech.
“I don’t think that’s democracy,” Fischmann said.
Sen. Eric Griego sponsored the Joint Memorial which echoes a national proposal by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Fischmann said his memorial allows more latitude in approaches to undoing the harm caused by the Citizens United decision.
At last count, five amendment resolutions addressing Citizens United have been introduced in the congress, including one by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall.
In explaining his opposition, Dennis Kintigh (R-Roswell) said he would be “hypocritical” to vote for the memorial because he was the recipient of a huge amount of money when he defeated House Minority Whip Dan Foley in a 2008 party primary. (Heath Haussamen reported extensively on that race – here and here.)
“I would not have succeeded without significant funding,” Kintigh said.
“We believe the citizens of the United States deserve more out of our Supreme Court and more out of our Congress,” Vicki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico said at the House hearing. Harrison echoed her comments at the Senate panel the next day.
Of the dozen or so members of the public that stayed throughout the long committee hearing, all were in support of the memorial including a number of representatives from a number of organizations throughout the state, including the League of Women Voters.
Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque) had the most memorable lines of the House hearing. In one, he compared corporations to the Borg, a villain from Star Trek.
In another, Maestas said, “It is OK for corporations to control he economy, it is not OK for corporations to control the government.”
Odds and Ends
- Last Saturday was the two year anniversary of the Citizens United decision.
- Kintigh also said he opposed campaign contribution limits.”The reason I’m opposed to them is because they are inherently an incumbent protection act,” Kintigh said.
- Harrison cited a USA Today report that there has been over $9 million in spending by SuperPACs so far in the Republican presidential primary. Only three states have voted in the primary so far.
- Committee chair Gail Chasey noted, “I heard Newt Gingrich complaining about the spending by third-party groups.
- A lobbyist for the New Mexico Trial Lawyer’s Association said his six-year old daughter knows what SuperPACs are because of their influence on the Republican Primary.
- Sen. Dede Feldman (D-Albuquerque) cited a Bill Moyers piece where former Ronald Reagan budget director David Stockman talked about the corrupting influence of corporations on the political process.
- In a previous bill that would add $50,000 in funding to a burn center in Albuquerque, Kintigh opposed it in large part because people in his area of the state go to a regional burn center in Lubbock, Texas instead of Albuquerque. This led to an amusing exchange:
Kintigh:”I’m not sure it serves our need, I wish it just wasn’t that way.”
Chasey: “That we can’t give money to Texas?”
This led to a discussion of funding projects in Albuquerque versus rural areas.