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House Boosts Measure for Constitutional Convention on Campaign Cash

Seeking to blunt what they consider to be the damaging impact of money in American political campaigns, the Maryland House of Delegates has approved a call for a national constitutional convention.

The measure, if approved by the state Senate, would add Maryland to the list of a handful of states supporting a convention to repeal Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that struck down limits on independent expenditures by corporations, non-profits, unions and others.

Critics of the Citizens United ruling say political debate in the U.S. has been damaged by a torrent of money, often from shadowy organizations spouting half-truths about candidates and causes. Backers contend that limits on political spending infringe upon the First Amendment.

The conservative advocacy group Citizens United, which brought the campaign finance case to the Supreme Court after being told by the Federal Election Commission that it could not spend unlimited funds promoting a film that attacks Hillary Clinton, is headed by David Bossie, who doubles as Republican national committeeman for Maryland.

The measure calling for a constitutional convention passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 93-43. It heads to the Senate, which approved similar legislation a couple of years ago.

Del. Jimmy Tarlau

The supporters of a constitutional convention believe it is necessary because Congress shows no interest in enacting legislation to blunt the impact of Citizens United.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), one of 76 co-sponsors of the bill, told his colleagues the time to get serious about the impact of money in politics is now.

“I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” he said during floor debate. “The perspective back home, with our residents, is that we’re all bought and paid for by big money. We need to show them that that is not the case.”

Opponents of the measure establishing an “Article V convention” expressed concern that such a gathering could get out of hand.

“To me it is to ask for trouble upon trouble,” said Del. Robin L. Grammer Jr. (R-Baltimore County).  “The people that are going to be there aren’t going to be people who are thinking about the foundations of how a government should be constituted. It’s going to be every lobbyist from coast to coast.”

Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s), a co-sponsor of the measure, sought to provide reassurance. “This convention is a very narrow call. It’s only for the purpose of authorizing the regulation of contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections,” he said. “Nothing else.”

Del. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) said the legislature should ban corporate contributions at the state level before weighing in on national politics.

“I dare say that every single person in this room has accepted checks from corporations,” he said. “Isn’t it hypocritical for us to stand here and try to tell the federal government what to do?”

Citizens United President David Bossie is interviewed at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Tarlau rose immediately to disagree. “Not everyone takes money from corporations,” he said.

Many progressive groups have worried that a constitutional convention might exceed its original intent and end up overturning abortion rights, marriage equality or other Supreme Court decisions they hold dear.

In 2017 Maryland rescinded an earlier call for a constitutional convention, out of fear for how President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress might try to exploit the opportunity beyond the original call of requiring a balance budget amendment.

Two-third of the states (34) must adopt a call for a constitutional convention in order for such a gathering to take place. Three-quarters (38) would be required to adopt a specific amendment.

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House Boosts Measure for Constitutional Convention on Campaign Cash