Opinion: Getting Politicians to Work for the Voters

A section of the original U.S. Constitution. National Archives image

At the end of 2019 a commission appointed by top officials in Massachusetts delivered recommendations on how to reverse a trend that is ravaging our democracy. They included pursuing a little-known but historically effective tool.

Federal court decisions over the past 40 years — most infamously the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — have brought wholesale changes in campaign finance laws that have given us virtually unrestricted electoral spending. This has resulted in an unprecedented level of corruption, and threatens the very existence of representative government.

Voters — regardless of ideology or party affiliation — want politicians to work for them, not their campaign donors. But the corrupting influence of special interests on campaigns has made the majority of Congress beholden to their donors and rendered voters virtually voiceless.

While this threat is most pronounced at the federal level, it also is becoming increasingly prevalent at the state level. A recent Maryland Public Interest Research Group report found that candidates for governor of Maryland raised $70.1 million over the last three election cycles, 52% of it coming not from Maryland voters, but from out-of-state donors.

The Massachusetts commission called for amending the U.S. Constitution to establish that corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as human beings and that campaign contributions and expenditures may be regulated. It also outlined strategies for achieving that goal. The commission advocated lobbying Congress to propose such an amendment for ratification by the states, but it also endorsed a lesser-known means of proposing a constitutional amendment.

Article V of the Constitution provides two ways to propose an amendment. Two-thirds of each house in Congress could vote for such a proposal, though that’s unlikely to happen while this corrupting money flows.

A second way allows for two-thirds of the states to call for a convention for proposing an amendment. And support from the states in calling for a convention is a proven strategy to pressure Congress to act. Whichever way the amendment is proposed, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

The Massachusetts commission urged those pursuing the 28th Amendment to “leverage multiple paths” and said the commonwealth should “support a limited-purpose Article V convention.”

For the past eight sessions of the Maryland General Assembly, activists have been working toward passage of the Democracy Amendment Resolution, which would add Maryland to the list of states that have already called for an amendment convention for the specific purpose of ending “corporate personhood” and enshrining the ability of state and federal governments to regulate campaign finance. The measure has passed both the House of Delegates and state Senate, but not yet in the same session.

The Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs will hear testimony on the Democracy Amendment Resolution on Thursday. Maryland citizens should contact their senators and committee members to urge their support.

The framers foresaw the possibility that Congress itself could become a problem in need of constitutional reform and thus unlikely to propose an amendment of its own accord. That’s the situation we face now. Fortunately, the framers gave us an alternative path. Purging our political system of the corrupting influence of big money is too important not to use any means necessary.

— DOUG MILLER

The writer is a Get Money Out – Maryland board member who lives in Columbia.