The U.S. Supreme Court ruling throwing out the 1912 Montana law reminds us that those who fail to learn the lessons of history may be doomed to repeat them.
Montana’s economy, government and newspapers were dominated by monopolistic business interests in the first decades of statehood.
Copper king William A. Clark’s payoffs to Montana legislators in 1899 constituted one of the bribery cases that eventually prompted the writing and ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, requiring that U.S. senators be elected by voters — not by state legislators.
Montanans fought against the Anaconda copper collar with an initiative voters approved in 1912, outlawing direct corporate contributions to political campaigns.
By the barest of margins – just one vote – the U.S. Supreme Court Monday overturned the Montana Supreme Court decision that had upheld our 1912 law. The five-justice majority ruled that Montana’s law is unconstitutional under the same rationale it used in the 2010 Citizens United decision.
Sen. Max Baucus has proposed a constitutional amendment that would authorize Congress to make laws regulating political contributions and spending for federal elections and authorize state governments to legislate regulations for state elections. Sen. Jon Tester signed on as a cosponsor. Their proposal is set for a Senate hearing next month.
Few problems rise to the level of warranting a change in the U.S. Constitution. Like the corruption that plagued legislative election of U.S. senators, the deluge of money in politics is one of the few.
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Rep. Denny Rehberg praised the Supreme Court decision Monday and told The Gazette State Bureau that the correct response is requiring reporting of political spending.
However, the same group that successfully sued to overturn the 1912 anti-corruption law also is suing to be exempted from the state’s reporting requirement. American Tradition Partnership contends that it is an educational organization, not a political organization.
Montana law doesn’t restrict independent political expenditures, but requires that contributors and spending be reported to the commissioner of political practices. This law was enacted as a result of the terrible lack of transparency on the part of state and national leaders during the Watergate era.
Montana law limits individuals to a maximum donation of $1,260 to a candidate for governor. Those limits should be eliminated, state Sen. Jeff Essmann told The Gazette State Bureau. We ask Essmann and the other “no limits” proponents to consider: How many Montanans can afford to contribute more than $1,260?
Montanans must start debating the changes that will follow the Supreme Court ruling. A resolution destined for the November ballot asks voters to state their support for a U.S. constitutional amendment.
The 2013 Legislature should consider how the state could limit all political contributions so that corporations and individual citizens have the same accountability in political debate. The Legislature should strengthen reporting and transparency laws.
Candidates need both votes and money to win. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, candidates for Montana offices will need more money than ever before.