By Alan Wirzbicki
WASHINGTON -- As anger at last month's Supreme Court decision that gutted decades of campaign finance laws continues to build on Capitol Hill, Senator John Kerry joined calls for Congress and the states to amend the Constitution for only the 28th time in its history, a dramatic step he said was necessary to restore restrictions on corporate influence in politics that were struck down in the ruling.
"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," Kerry testified at a Senate hearing today.
Amending the Constitution is a daunting task, requiring a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and the ratification of three-fourths of the states. Amendments have been extremely rare since the Constitutional Convention in 1787: the document was last amended in 1992, when states approved an amendment restricting members of Congress from raising their own salaries in the midst of a Congressional term.
Kerry's call for an amendment comes as members of Congress are hastily piecing together legislation to blunt the impact of the ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. The 5-4 decision effectively outlawed limits on corporate donations to politics, ruling that such restrictions infringed on the free speech rights of corporations.
Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Lowell, said today that she would introduce legislation restricting corporations from using government money, such as bailout funds, for political purposes. Tsongas's office said she would seek to attach the provision to a more sweeping bill that is being prepared by Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, in response to the ruling. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, is working on similar legislation in the Senate.
An aide to Van Hollen said the congressman hoped to have a bill finished by the end of the week, but had not yet reviewed Tsongas's proposal. The legislation may include separate proposals introduced by Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, last week that would require corporations to seek shareholder approval before spending money on politics, the aide said.
However, Congress's power to undo the decision through legislation is limited, said Richard H. Fallon, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School.
"They will not be able to do anything that would overcome the main thrust and effect of the decision," he said. "They may be able to mute its effect to some relatively minor extent, but five justices were very clear that they saw an issue of constitutional principle here."
Campaign finance reform advocacy groups and some Democrats have expressed support for a Constitutional amendment, but many lawmakers consider the idea radioactive, fearing that even beginning such an unpredictable process in a polarized political climate would open the floodgates to other amendments. Many conservatives support a constitutional ban on gay marriage, for instance.
In an interview with the Globe last week, Capuano said that while he strongly opposed the Court's ruling, amending the Constitution was the wrong approach.
"I'm not inclined to support a Constitutional amendment," he said. "My fear is that once you open up the Constitution to amendment, you open up a whole host of issues that I wouldn't necessarily agree with."
However, it is theoretically possible to pass an amendment without the support of Congress. Ordinarily, an amendment needs the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress before it can be submitted to the states for ratification. But the states can also hold a special convention to draft an amendment, circumventing Congress.
In the 222 years since the Constitution was written, that approach has never been used.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.