PORTLAND, Maine — As the U.S. Senate prepares for a preliminary vote on a constitutional amendment to stem the ever-growing tide of big money in politics, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows took the opportunity Monday to blast Sen. Susan Collins, her Republican opponent, for refusing to sign on to that effort.
The proposal was authored by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and would give Congress and state legislatures the authority to regulate money in politics, as well as the ability to distinguish between “natural” people and corporations.
The Udall amendment is designed to roll back several U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have expanded the political role of private businesses, nonprofits and unions by lifting limits on their ability to send money to influence elections.
Specifically, 2010’s Citizens United decision expanded First Amendment rights to corporations. That, in conjunction with other rulings that lifted campaign contribution limits and equated the right of political spending with free speech, have opened a firehose of campaign cash from the private sector.
Bellows, a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said she supported Udall’s amendment, and criticized Collins for not doing the same.
“Most people agree that big money in our politics threatens our democracy,” Bellows said during a news conference at Portland City Hall. “In the wake of controversial Supreme Court rulings like Citizen United, the influence of the wealthiest individuals and largest corporations threatens to drown out the voice of regular Americans.”
In a statement Monday, Collins said she opposes Udall’s amendment, and plans to vote against it. However, she said she will vote in favor of letting the bill proceed to the Senate floor for debate on Monday.
Collins said she supported other, more limited efforts to increase transparency in political spending, but joined the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the Udall amendment.
“I share serious concerns that many others have raised about the proposed constitutional amendment before the Senate,” she said. “The ACLU wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee ‘strongly’ opposing this constitutional amendment, saying that it ‘would severely limit the First Amendment, lead directly to government censorship of political speech and result in a host of unintended consequences that would undermine the goals the amendment has been introduced to advance.’”
However, Bellows said Collins’ opposition to the Udall amendment was part of a trend of the Republican senator choosing the side of big money in politics, such as her opposition to the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required big campaign spenders to identify the sources of their funding.
Collins’ campaign portrayed Bellows’ support for Udall’s amendment as a campaign flip-flop, saying that Bellows’ previous opposition to other campaign finance amendments contradicted her position today.
Last year, Bellows told a crowd of supporters that she opposed an amendment supported by some progressives that would state, unequivocally, that corporations are not people, campaign spending is not political speech and that constitutional rights are guaranteed only to natural human beings — not corporations.
Bellows said that amendment concerned her, because removing all the rights from corporations could have unintended, broad non-electoral consequences on the day-to-day operations of nonprofits, such as Planned Parenthood.
Udall’s amendment is more narrowly defined, opting instead only to ensure that Congress and states have the right to limit campaign spending and donations.
However, it does contain a provision that allows Congress to “distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.”
When asked by the BDN during Monday’s news conference whether she thought that could open the door for any unintended consequences, Bellows denied the provision existed. As evidence, she cited an outdated version of Udall’s proposal, seemingly unaware that Udall’s original amendment had been amended since its introduction. (Bellows later said she had made a mistake in reading an older version while taking questions from the BDN).
However, after seeing the current version of the proposal, Bellows said she saw no cause for concern.
“I think the common-sense interpretation is that Congress should be able to treat ExxonMobil and Bank of America differently than they treat the ordinary voter, and that the ordinary voter should have more free speech rights in our democracy,” she said.
That’s the same assessment shared by King, who said in an interview Monday the “distinguish” clause would not have any unforeseen consequences. King said he saw the Udall amendment as a fundamentally conservative effort.
“This returns the law to what it was for years before the intervention of an activist Supreme Court,” King said. “Nobody ever thought corporations had First Amendment rights before Citizens United. .. Corporations aren’t people.”
Bellows said Collins was at least partially responsible for those Supreme Court rulings, because she had voted to confirm conservative justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts, who fundamentally tipped the ideological balance of the court.
Even if Udall’s amendment ultimately passes in the Senate, the bill faces certain death in the U.S. House of Representatives, where the GOP majority controls the agenda.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.