Senators want to revamp campaign spending laws

2012-01-24T19:19:00Z 2012-02-28T15:40:30Z Senators want to revamp campaign spending lawsBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus said Tuesday that they are backing proposed constitutional amendments to reverse a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision on campaign finance laws.

They want to empower Congress to regulate campaign fundraising and spending in federal races and give state the same power in elections for state office.

Their actions came shortly after Saturday’s two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That freed up corporations, foreign companies and unions to spend unlimited money from their general funds on independent political expenditures, including the direct advocacy for the election or defeat of candidates.

Tester said Tuesday that he’s signing on to a proposed constitutional amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in November.

Also Tuesday, Baucus said he was reintroducing his own 2010 proposed constitutional amendment that addresses the same issue somewhat differently. Tester signed on as co-sponsor of that bill, too.

Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who is opposing Tester for the Senate, is not supporting these efforts and says he believes that limiting or silencing free speech is dangerous. Instead, he favors putting more sunlight on the process to make political speech more transparency.

To amend the U.S. Constitution, a measure must pass both the U.S. Senate and House by two-third majority votes. Three-fourths of the states must ratify it for the change to take effect.

“It’s a pretty steep climb, and it’s not going to affect this election,” Tester said. “But the fact is this is something that’s right for Montana and right for the country. This is something worth fighting for.”

These bills also come less than a month after the Montana Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and reinstated the state’s century-old, voter-passed prohibition on corporations making independent political expenditures.

Western Tradition Partnership, a Washington, D.C., group, and two Montana corporations had urged the court to strike down the Montana law based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent. They are seeking to appeal the Montana Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tester said he decided to sign on to Udall bill for several reasons.

“I think ultimately the (Supreme Court) decision popped a bunch of money into elections with no transparency and no accountability,” Tester said in an interview. “Unless there’s sunlight, nobody knows where it’s coming from.”

Tester praised the Montana Supreme Court decision to restore the law that voters passed in 1912 because of concerns over corporate corruption here.

“Montanans 100 years ago saw what can happen when corporations can buy elections,” Tester said. “The people stood up and said we want no more of that. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re saying timeout.”

Tester said he’s already seeing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision this campaign through third-party ads with false information.

Rehberg’s campaign spokesman, Chris Bond, said, “It’s more than a little hypocritical for Senator Tester to lecture Montanans about restricting campaign finance when he is the No. 1 recipient of lobbyist campaign cash out of any Washington politician this election cycle.”

Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy noted that Citizens United, the plaintiff in the federal case, endorsed Rehberg in September 2011.

Baucus said the Citizens United ruling left foreign corporations and big business free to pour unlimited sums of money into U.S. elections.

“We’ve got to fight to protect the voices of hard-working Montanans and keep elections in the hands of the people, and that’s just what my legislation will do,” Baucus said. “Democracy means people have the power to elect a government that represents them — not big business or foreign corporations.”

He added that Montanans learned their lessons a century ago when the Copper Kings used their corporate power to drown out the people and buy elections.

“Today, Montana has some of the toughest campaign finance laws in the land, and they work,” Baucus said.

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