House Boosts Measure for Constitutional Convention on Campaign Cash

By Bruce DePuyt

Seeking to blunt what they consider to be the damaging impact of money in American political campaigns, the Maryland House of Delegates has approved a call for a national constitutional convention.

The measure, if approved by the state Senate, would add Maryland to the list of a handful of states supporting a convention to repeal Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that struck down limits on independent expenditures by corporations, non-profits, unions and others.

Critics of the Citizens United ruling say political debate in the U.S. has been damaged by a torrent of money, often from shadowy organizations spouting half-truths about candidates and causes. Backers contend that limits on political spending infringe upon the First Amendment.

The conservative advocacy group Citizens United, which brought the campaign finance case to the Supreme Court after being told by the Federal Election Commission that it could not spend unlimited funds promoting a film that attacks Hillary Clinton, is headed by David Bossie, who doubles as Republican national committeeman for Maryland.

The measure calling for a constitutional convention passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 93-43. It heads to the Senate, which approved similar legislation a couple of years ago.

Tarlau

Del. Jimmy Tarlau

The supporters of a constitutional convention believe it is necessary because Congress shows no interest in enacting legislation to blunt the impact of Citizens United.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), one of 76 co-sponsors of the bill, told his colleagues the time to get serious about the impact of money in politics is now.

“I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” he said during floor debate. “The perspective back home, with our residents, is that we’re all bought and paid for by big money. We need to show them that that is not the case.”

Opponents of the measure establishing an “Article V convention” expressed concern that such a gathering could get out of hand.

“To me it is to ask for trouble upon trouble,” said Del. Robin L. Grammer Jr. (R-Baltimore County).  “The people that are going to be there aren’t going to be people who are thinking about the foundations of how a government should be constituted. It’s going to be every lobbyist from coast to coast.”

Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s), a co-sponsor of the measure, sought to provide reassurance. “This convention is a very narrow call. It’s only for the purpose of authorizing the regulation of contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections,” he said. “Nothing else.”

Del. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) said the legislature should ban corporate contributions at the state level before weighing in on national politics.

“I dare say that every single person in this room has accepted checks from corporations,” he said. “Isn’t it hypocritical for us to stand here and try to tell the federal government what to do?”

Bossie

Citizens United President David Bossie is interviewed at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Tarlau rose immediately to disagree. “Not everyone takes money from corporations,” he said.

Many progressive groups have worried that a constitutional convention might exceed its original intent and end up overturning abortion rights, marriage equality or other Supreme Court decisions they hold dear.

In 2017 Maryland rescinded an earlier call for a constitutional convention, out of fear for how President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress might try to exploit the opportunity beyond the original call of requiring a balance budget amendment.

Two-third of the states (34) must adopt a call for a constitutional convention in order for such a gathering to take place. Three-quarters (38) would be required to adopt a specific amendment.

 

3 comments

  • State legislature calls for a convention on a topic–in this case Campaign Finance Reform–are a time-honored way of building public support and momentum toward reform. 2017 when the General Assembly rescinded earlier convention calls, they rescinded calls that were old, stale and no longer reflected the views of the majority of Maryland citizens and their representatives. The rescinded calls were on these topics: abolish One person, One Vote; reestablish prayer in school; abolish the income tax; and call for a federal balanced budget. Most legislators who voted to rescind those old calls, also signed on to an amendments convention for the purpose of proposing an amendment to regulate campaign finance, the resolution that passed the House–with a bipartisan vote–yesterday.
    More than 96% of citizens identify the overwhelming amount of money in our elections as corrupting and damaging to our democracy. Throughout amending history, more than half of amendments began at the state level. The 17th Amendment–direct election of Senators–was proposed by Congress when the threshold was one state short of the required 2/3rds. If Maryland passes the Democracy Amendment Resolution it will put Congress on notice that a reform movement is growing, it will inspire citizens in other states where amendment efforts are current, and it will show bold leadership on the part of the General Assembly. As Delegate Kramer stated: this is a tool the Founders wrote into the Constitution for a time when Congress is too broken to respond to the will of the people. The movement for amending is comprised of groups using a number of tools including simple resolutions asking Congress to write the amendment. Maryland sent such a letter in 2012. The convention call is designed to light a fire under Congress. Since the Supreme Court is currently unlikely to overturn Citizens United, the only other way to address the growing inequality caused by the ever increasing amounts of money that are raised and spent to control election outcomes is via a constitutional amendment. As Congressman Raskin, who wrote the Democracy Amendment Resolution, when he was a state Senator from District 20 stated in his favorable testimony: sometimes the states are called upon to be constitutional actors. Thank you House of Delegates for acting boldly and wisely.

  • Bruce – I have to say that the statement “Good-government advocates believe a constitutional convention is necessary because Congress shows no interest in enacting legislation to blunt the impact of Citizens United,” is just not true – unless we no longer consider the ACLU, League of Women Voters, Common Cause, People for the American Way, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Campaign Legal Center and many more to be good government advocates. All oppose this measure.

    Del. Chris West is right – at best, this is a do-nothing measure when the legislature could easily ban corporate contributions. At worst, this increases the danger of a Convention under Donald Trump. Irresponsible, regardless.

  • Legislators and voters alike will be getting an earful as the Senate vote approaches about how “dangerous” this legislation is, how it will “throw the entire U.S. Constitution up for grabs,” that Article V isn’t specific enough about how an amendment convention would work or what rules would govern its conduct to risk ever actually using it. The American Bar Association, the Congressional Research Service and the Department of Justice have all concluded that an Article V convention can indeed be limited to a single topic. Yes, a convention would take us into uncharted waters. But if you think a convention would be risky, compare that to the risk of continuing on our present course. Every day that Buckley v. Valleo, McCutcheon v. FEC and the Citizens United decision continue to form the basis of our campaign finance law allows the grip of wealthy special interests to tighten around the throat of American democracy. The Supreme Court is unlikely to reverse itself in the foreseeable future. Congress will not rebel against the system that keeps its members entrenched, or against the corporate masters who profit from it, unless faced with some real consequences: the wrath of a growing citizen movement empowered by our founding document to act when Congress itself is the problem. Remember, we’re seeking an amendment, not the convention itself. If our activism prompts Congress to propose the needed amendment, so much the better. But without the threat of a convention taking it out of Congress’ hands, do any of us seriously believe that will ever happen? We can beg Congress until we’re blue in the face to fix our corrupt political system, or We the People can take concrete steps toward making it happen. Don’t fall for the fear-mongering. Tell your state Senator to pass SJ7 now.

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