An activist in New York City. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
When the Maine State House voted 111-33 this week to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the support for this bold gesture was notably bipartisan. Twenty-five Republicans joined four independents and all eighty-two Democrats to back the call.
Similarly, when the Maine State Senate voted 25-9 for the resolution, five Republicans joined with nineteen Democrats and independent Senator Richard Woodbury to “call upon each Member of the Maine Congressional Delegation to actively support and promote in Congress an amendment to the United States Constitution on campaign finance.”
What happened in Maine this week was a big deal for several reasons:
1. Maine became the thirteenth state to urge Congress to develop an amendment to address the money-in-politics crisis that is unfolding as a result of Supreme Court rulings that that have effectively struck down campaign-finance regulations and ushered in a new era of unlimited spending by wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Maine joins West Virginia, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii in calling for an amendment. Washington, DC, has also backed the drive.
2. The swift action by both houses of the Maine legislature, coming less than a month after West Virginia urged Congress to act, confirms the momentum that is building for the movement, which has been backed by almost 500 communities nationwide. Though media coverage has been scant, it is rare in recent history for a grassroots movement to amend the constitution to have attracted so much official support at the municipal, county and state levels nationwide.
3. As in a number of other states, the significant level of bipartisan support in Maine provides a reminder that this movement is attracting support from across the partisan and ideological spectrum.
That final point merits particular attention.
Because of the often narrow and simplistic way in which political debates are covered in the United States—if they are covered at all—there is a tendency to think that all Democrats are reformers, while all Republicans are backers of big money in politics. That’s not the case. Polling has consistently shown that Republicans support for restrictions on corporate spending in elections very nearly parallels that of Democrats. And, while there are too many national Democrats who buy into big-money equations, there are Republicans who have begun to raise the right objections—and point to the right answers. Notably, Congressman Walter Jones Jr., a very conservative Republican congressman from North Carolina, is a cosponsor—along with Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth—of a constitutional amendment proposal that would overturn key provisions of the Citizens United decision and establish that campaign contributions can be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.
Bipartisan support for reform is more evident in the states. State legislators are active at the grassroots, knocking on doors and meeting constituents face to face. They recognize the deep frustration with a political process that seems to have spun out of control, and they reject the premise that corporations and wealthy individuals have a constitutional right to buy elections.
“There has to be a way to secure First Amendment rights to speech and still control the amount of dollars spent on campaigns,” says Maine state Senator Edward Youngblood, a Republican who went so far as to appear at rallies calling for a constitutional amendment. “It should be plain to everyone after the election we’ve just had, which broke records for spending, that the system isn’t getting better.”
Youngblood is right, and the group that organized support for reform in his state, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, wisely reached out to Democrats, Republicans, independents and third-party backers in pursuit of a “multi-partisan” coalition.
The approach has excited national groups such as Public Citizen’s Democracy Is for People Campaign, Move to Amend and Free Speech for People. Indeed, Free Speech for People’s Peter Schurman declared, “This terrific bi-partisan vote is a huge win, not only for Maine, but for all Americans. Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike are clamoring for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and bring back real democracy. We’re thrilled that Maine is now helping lead the way forward.”
He’s right, especially when it comes to the emphasis on drawing support from all parties for a reform that seeks to restore genuine competition based on ideas—as opposed to a shouting match between billionaires.
How did Wall Street knock the wind out of Dodd-Frank? Read Gary Rivlin’s analysis.