Constitutional amendments are not easy to pass, but that’s not stopping proponents of an amendment to limit political spending by corporations. Their effort is starting at the grass roots this fall with a question appearing on some Massachusetts ballots.
Locally, it will appear on ballots in Salem, Beverly, Hamilton, Ipswich, Marblehead, Swampscott, Topsfield and Wenham.
It has inspired passion on both sides of the issue with its intent to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which eliminated restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions.
On the one hand are people like grandmother Maureen Driscoll, who worries that rich businesses are using their wealth to warp the political process. She sees Citizens United as a ruling that shortcircuits common-sense electoral reform.
On the other hand are people like Salem State professor Kani Sathasivam, chairman of the political science department, who believes the proposal is an assault on the cherished right of free speech. He believes the court simply sustained the time-honored right to participate in democracy.
Driscoll hopes that passing the question will prod politicians in Washington to get the amendment process started. A Beverly resident, she helped get it on her hometown ballot, as well as in Ipswich, Swampscott and Marblehead. At age 70, she is a retired computer programmer who worked for a corporation, General Electric, and has nothing bad to say about the company.
“We are not anti-corporation,” she said. She just wants them to know their place. “Their money is stacked against the individual. The significance of a (corporation’s) million-dollar contribution is much more than my $10 or $20.”
Sathasivam’s specialty is foreign relations, but he takes a keen interest in civil rights. An immigrant from Sri Lanka, he left his homeland 25 years ago at the beginning of a ruinous civil war. He has no interest in ever going back.
“I fled that country for precisely the reason that I could not speak freely,” he said. It’s the contrast in America that inspires his devotion to the Bill of Rights, including the prohibition “Congress shall make no law .... abridging the freedom of speech.” “I take those rights very seriously and consider them very precious.”
All this began with the McCain-Feingold Act, passed by Congress in 2002, and designed to limit the ability of corporations and unions to make donations to political campaigns, particularly in the month prior to a presidential election. In 2009 an appeal to the Supreme Court by a group called Citizens United, an organization stymied prior to the 2008 election in their efforts to show a movie critical of Hillary Clinton, convinced a narrow majority of justices that speech emanating from a corporation could not be limited in this way any more than speech from an individual.
“I said, ‘That’s crazy,’” recalls Driscoll. “Corporations are not people and are not entitled to the rights of human beings.”
Opponents of the decision have since launched the effort to undo it via a Constitutional amendment. Driscoll has been devoting a lot of time to that convoluted and often frustrating process. “It got me so fired up I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do next.’”
She’s stood in the freezing cold protesting, trying to urge state and federal leaders to act. With no previous background in politics, she’s also done a lot of study on the issue, learning the process as she goes. Challenge her with concerns over the impact on free speech, and she responds that they are addressed in the proposed amendment. It will, for example, exempt media corporations like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
Meanwhile, Driscoll has grown confident that the crusade can succeed, “if we get the American people behind this.”
By contrast, Sathasivam, 45, asserts that such a Constitutional amendment would be pointless. Corporations, he points out, contribute to candidates on both sides of the aisle, and to both liberal and conservative causes. “Many of President Obama’s biggest donors are corporate people,” he notes. “People from Wall Street. (Billionaire financier) Warren Buffett just gave $1.2 million to an Obama super PAC.”
Independent super PACs allow corporations to support ballot issues and candidates without breaking laws that sharply limit the amounts that can be given directly to their campaigns.
Sathasivam points to the workers and managers at corporations to make the point that they certainly are people. Meanwhile, he sees transparency as the solution to unease over spending by corporations. People should know who’s doing the spending, he says.
A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds votes in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as ratification by two-thirds of the legislatures of the states. Two-thirds of the state legislatures can also call for a constitutional convention to amend the document, but the process has not been used since the original constitutional convention in 1787.