Two lawmakers introduced a bill this week aimed at adding an amendment to the US Constitution, which would allow Congress and the states to regulate political expenditures by corporations.
The amendment bill is in response to a recent landmark Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down several longstanding prohibitions on corporate political contributions, saying legislative measures to control such spending infringed upon corporate First Amendment free speech rights.
“The ruling reached by the Roberts’ Court overturned decades of legal precedent by allowing corporations unfettered spending in our political campaigns,” said
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), who, along with Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), introduced the amendment into the House Judiciary Committee. “Another law will not rectify this disastrous decision. A constitutional amendment is necessary to undo what this court has done.”
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The text of the first section of the amendment reads: “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.”
At a Senate Rules Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) said, “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.” Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania) has also thrown his weight behind the proposal.
The amendment is being supported by a number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving voting and free speech rights, in an effort to mobilize popular support.
“This movement is an attempt to have the First Amendment restored to its proper purpose,” said John Bonifaz, the legal director of Voter Action, one of the organizations behind the initiative. “And that is to protect people, not corporations.”
Bonifaz said that Voter Action and its partners, which have created a web site to push the proposal, are seeking bipartisan support. Republican support would be necessary to make it through the two-thirds vote in Congress and the vote of three-quarters of state legislatures that would be required for the amendment to pass.
“We believe that this is an issue that reaches across party lines, and across political persuasions,” Bonifaz said. However, he admitted that the amendment has not been publicly supported by any Republican, though he stressed that the initiative was still in “the early stages.”
The announcement comes amid a flurry of legislation designed to counter the effects of the ruling, which might also allow foreign corporations that are incorporated in the US to spend money on political advertising.
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama took aim at the ruling, which he said “reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”
“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities,” Obama said. “They should be decided by the American people, and I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems.”
Democrats argued that the ruling would allow US subsidiaries of foreign companies and foreign companies incorporated in the US to contribute unlimited amounts of money on political expenditures like advertisements.
Some Republicans, though, have indicated their opposition to further restricting the rights of corporations gained in the ruling, and argued that the ruling does not change US laws that prohibit foreign corporations from contributing directly to political campaigns.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said that President Obama was “completely wrong” in his assessment of the ruling. “Foreign corporations were prohibited from participating in US elections before the Citizens United decision, and they still are,” McConnell said.
Both sides agree that much of the conflict stems from the Supreme Court’s decision to treat corporations like individuals.
“We’ve got to make it clear that corporations are not people, and don’t have the same free speech rights,” Bonifaz said. “Corporations were never intended to be protected by the framers.”