Should Washington ask for a constitutional amendment on campaign contributions?

People testifying at a legislative hearing want to overturn the Citizens United ruling. A key committee chair isn't convinced.
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Pam Roach

People testifying at a legislative hearing want to overturn the Citizens United ruling. A key committee chair isn't convinced.

It ain't just conservative billionaires. You've also gotta watch out for liberal billionaires hijacking elections.

That's the message that critics of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling sent Tuesday to the Senate Government Operations Committee. The message was that the Left can abuse the ruling's loopholes as much as the Right.

The 2010 Citizens United ruling removed all bans on spending in elections by corporations and labor organizations. Last  year, the High Court used the Citizens United ruling as the basis for tossing out Montana's limit on corporate campaign contributions.

Almost everyone at a packed state Senate hearing room supported a House Joint Memorial —  essentially a letter to Congress — calling for Congress to send to the states a U.S. Constitutional amendment returning the authority to regulate campaign financing to Congress and the state legislatures. No one testified against the memorial request.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, introduced a similar request in the Senate. It died in the Senate Government Operations Committee, the same body hearing the House version of the memorial.

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, introduced the request in the House, which passed it 55-42, mostly along party lines. Most, but not all, Republicans opposed it in the House.

"I have often sniffed at what we often call 'letters to Santa.' ... But this is a threat to democracy," Pedersen said. "Letters to Santa" is legislative slang for memorials, because they are usually symbolic requests to the federal government  that are normally ignored.

The recent gun control debate has shown that it isn't just conservatives who use the removal of campaign controls to target candidates. Pedersen -- who pushed unsuccesfully in the Democratic-controlled House to pass his gun background checks bill -- noted that a strict-gun-control group donated $2 million to defeat a candidate with a strong National Rifle Association record last month in a Chicago-area Congressional election.

Jim Street of the Washington Coalition to Amend the Constitution quoted a Chicago anti-gun activist about the deluge of Chicago campaign cash, from a group led by New York Mayor Michaeal Bloomberg: "Who's going to be the boss of this new member of Congress? Is it going to be Mr. Bloomberg or the voters of the Second District?"

Street also pointed to environmental activist and California billionaire Tom Steyer threatening a massive injection of cash against Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Stephen Lynch, unless Lynch withdraws his  support of the  Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the United States. Even Lynch's primary opponent, Edward Markey, condemned Steyer for interfering in Massachusetts's politics.

On the conservative side, the best-known example of massive millionaire donations is political consultant Karl Rove's $390 million Super PAC for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A major donor was Las Vegas gambling mogul  Sheldon Adleson, who gave $10 million to Romney plus another $20 million to Newt Gingrich in the Republican primaries.  

Pedersen and others said labor organizations abuse the lack of spending limits on the same scale as millionaires, billionaires and corporations. "I think the Supreme Court set an incorrect balance, and it will take a constitutional amendment to correct hat," Pedersen said.

Kline added, "It made a significant error that is unfortunate to the foundation of democracy."

"The system comes down to the more money you have, the more free speech you have," said committee member Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle.

But Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, was skeptical about Pedersen's measure. "What do you do with this thing that already exists? You can't unring the bell," Roach said.

Those testifying at the hearing weren't convinced. Chris Esh of the Washington Public Interest Research Group said, "Essentially we're stuck with this unless we take action."

Mike Harness, a private citizen from Snohomish, said: "If this went to America's voters, I don't think too many would vote against this bill."

Seven state legislatures have passed resolutions similar to Pedersen's — Hawaii, New Mexico, Vermont, Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Maryland and Connecticut's legislatures sent letters to Congress with the same request. And voters in Montana and Colorado passed ballot measures last year to seek such a constitutional amendment.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8