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.