Activists, Lawmakers Want Big Money Out of Politics — But Divide on How

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) works on the Senate floor. File photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

For the seventh consecutive year, lawmakers and grass-roots organizations are trying to pass a resolution that would enable Maryland to call on Congress to hold a convention to address the scourge of money in politics.

And for the seventh consecutive year, the resolution met opposition from groups that also oppose big money in politics — but are scared of a convention going too far.

Advocates of the resolution want to use it to chip away at the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that unleashed unlimited corporate contributions to candidates.

“We believe that our democracy is being eroded,” said Charlie Cooper, president of Get Money Out Maryland, a grassroots group that has been pushing for years legislators to call for a convention. The Article V convention would allow lawmakers to set campaign contribution limits.

Cooper called the surge of corporate contributions to politics a “very serious perversion to the Constitution by the Supreme Court.”

Cooper was among a dozen or so witnesses who testified in support of the resolution to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Thursday. Many supporters and opponents sat in the audience.

But dozens of organizations– who also want big money out of politics— are worried that a constitutional convention would open a Pandora’s Box of potential Constitutional amendments. If it did, no one knows what might happen.

“It’s always hard for us to oppose this bill,” said Joann Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which works with Get Money Out on a number of reforms.

“This is the one issue we split on,” Antoine said. “We empathize with what was shared, about the overall problems that Citizens United has created, but a constitutional convention just really isn’t the route forward.”

Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the legislation’s long-time sponsor, says he understands the concerns, but says there are safeguards to avoid a runaway convention. Any amendment would need to be ratified by 38 states. And Maryland could rescind its resolution for a convention if it looks like things could get out of hand.

“Hopefully it will put pressure on Congress and we won’t need a convention,” Pinsky said. “But right now, I want to agitate around the issue.”

Two-thirds of states would need to pass a resolution in order for Congress to call the convention, and five already have.

Each year, the resolution has fallen short. In 2015, it passed the Maryland Senate but couldn’t get through the House, and in 2018 it passed the House but got held up in the Senate.

But Cooper thinks there’s a better shot of passing the resolution this year than in previous years. This year, Pinsky and the three other standing committee chairmen are sponsoring the measure: Budget and Taxation Chairman Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County), and Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery).

“I can’t sit by and let these kinds of things happen,” Pinsky said. “I believe in this, even if we can’t get it passed.”