Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry on Tuesday said Congress should pass a constitutional amendment that clarifies that corporations do not enjoy the same free speech rights as everyday Americans.
Kerry also said that over the short-term Congress should consider enacting legislation that give shareholders and investors more say in corporate political spending, prohibit spending from U.S. contractors and domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations, and offer candidates the prime time access to the public airwaves at the lowest rates.
“We must do those things quickly,” Kerry said. “But we may also need to think bigger. I think we need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same rights as individuals.”
A constitutional amendment requires support from two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states. Despite the uphill battle, Kerry argued it is a necessary to curb the “increased influence of money — big money — in our politics.”
"Amending the Constitution is a serious endeavor and some of the sharpest minds in the country are working together right now to construct language for an amendment that would solve the problem and get to the heart of the issue," he said. "I’m ready to work with them and with the activists it will take to get an amendment ratified."
The suggestion came during a Senate Rules Committee hearing on Capitol Hill where lawmakers bounced around several ideas aimed at curbing the new power awarded corporations and unions under a landmark January 21 Supreme Court ruling.
The historic 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC overturned a 20-year-old ruling that said corporations can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for their own campaign ads and rolled back centuries-old law about corporate spending. Under the ruling, corporations and unions will still be prohibited from giving direct contributions to candidates.
The ruling led to an unusual exchange last week when Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and apparently mouthed "not true" after President Barack Obama criticized the ruling in his State of the Union Address. "The Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said. "I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems."
At the hearing Tuesday, Democrats also focused on authoring legislation that would strengthen disclosure and disclaimer laws, which would make it easier to track which corporations are behind television and radio ads targeting candidates. Democrats also generally agreed that Congress should move swiftly to enact such legislation before the congressional elections later this November, where all 435 seat in the House of Representatives and 36 seats in the Senate are up for grabs.
“If Congress fails to act, our country will be faced with big, moneyed interests spending, or threatening to spend, millions on ads against those who dare to stand up to them,” said Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Others said that the ruling stood for the 1st Amendment rights of all Americans.
The committee’s ranking Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah applauded the courts decision.
“All Americans know they’re free to speak their minds without having to get permission from the government,” Bennett said. “All Americans can praise or criticize office holders without having to worry about committing a crime.”
He continued, “That the essence of the First Amendment. That everybody should be treated alike. That everybody should have the same rights. Everybody should be able to deal with speaking freely and boldly and sometimes foolishly with respect to an election. That’s a good thing. It should not be feared. It should be cheered and celebrated.”
Bennett reminded the committee that the most deep-pocketed political candidates do not always win and that just because someone can spend money it does not mean they will spend it wisely.
"Can anybody say New Coke?” he said. In her testimony, Allison R. Hayward, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, encouraged Congress avoid knee-jerk reactions and to “observe how corporations or unions react to Citizens United before legislating.”
“It is the task of Congress, based on experience and sound logic, to respond appropriately if aspects of the political system endanger the integrity of the institution and its members,” she said. “Only when such issues emerge will there be any way to evaluate the threat, the government’s interest, and which of the many means available — campaign finance laws, ethics rules, tax incentives and others — might be best to meet that threat.”
Any such proposal aimed at reducing the impact of the ruling would likely need 60 votes to pass the Senate. Following Scott Brown’s stunning victory in Massachusetts, Democrats will soon only hold 59 seats.