The Constitution of the United States can be amended in two formal ways: from the top down and from the bottom up.
But New Mexico legislators have found a third way and, hopefully, other state legislators around the country will follow their lead.
The US Constitution is traditionally amended via a process that begins with the endorsement of an amendment by the US House and US Senate and then the ratification of that amendment by the requisite three-fourths of state legislatures. That’s the top-down route. The bottom-up route begins when two-thirds of the state legislatures ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments.
But what if a state legislature tells Congress to get moving?
That’s what happened over the weekend, when the New Mexico state Senate voted 20-9 to approve Senate Memorial 3, which calls on the Congress to pass and send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. The Citizens United ruling was one of several that opened the floodgates for corporate special-interest money to overwhelm the political process.
The New Mexico Senate vote, which follows on a January 31 vote by the New Mexico House, aligns the state with Hawaii in calling for the amendment. And it gives a big boost to the campaigning by Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, Common Cause and other groups that are working on various strategies to get communities and states nationwide to demand an amendment.
“This marks a major victory for the constitutional amendment movement to reclaim our democracy,” says John Bonifaz, executive director of Free Speech for People, the national nonpartisan campaign launched on the day of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to press for a Twenty-eighth Amendment to the US Constitution to overturn the ruling. “The Citizens United ruling presents a direct and serious threat to the integrity of our elections, unleashing a torrent of corporate money into our political process. The ruling is also the most extreme extension yet of a corporate rights doctrine which has been eroding our First Amendment and our US Constitution for the past 30 years. As with prior egregious Supreme Court rulings which threatened our democracy, we the people must exercise our power under Article V of the Constitution to enact a constitutional amendment which will preserve the promise of American self-government: of, for, and by the people.”
Free Speech for People initiated the New Mexico push, and worked closely with New Mexico State Senators Steve Fischmann and Eric Griego and State Representative Mimi Stewart to advance it. Support came from the Center for Civic Policy, Common Cause New Mexico, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, El Centro, the Southwest Organizing Project, All Families Matter, the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, the Native American Voter Alliance, Progress Now and Move On.
The New Mexico move is important, as it comes at the start of a year when activist groups are seeking to ramp up support for an amendment.
“Through Amend 2012, the campaign we formally launched last month, Common Cause helped secure [victories in communities across the county],” says Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “As you know, Amend2012 aims to give voters in as many states as possible an opportunity to make their voices heard now, during the 2012 elections, on the need to overturn Citizens United. Common Cause is working to give voters the tools to put ‘voter instruction’ measures on the November ballot in as many states as possible, either by voter initiative or action by the state legislature. The measures would instruct Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment to make it clear that corporations are not people and authorize campaign spending limits.”
The idea is catching on in the states. And with people who may be in Congress soon.
New Mexico Senator Eric Griego, an amendment proponent in that state, is running for the US House this year.
So, too, is Wisconsin state Representative Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who is co-sponsoring pro-amendment legislation.
Because so many state legislatures end up as Congressional contenders—and members of Congress—the fight to get states to tell Congress to amend the Constitution pays double bonuses. It sends a message and, depending on the election results this year, it could send more champions of the amendment movement to Congress.
John Nichols’s new book on protests and politics, prising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, will be published next week by Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.