Common Cause seeks constitutional amendment to curb super PACs

Bob Edgar, Common Cause's president and a former Delaware County Democratic congressman, announced that his organization was starting a national campaign to control corporate political spending by changing the Constitution.
Bob Edgar, Common Cause's president and a former Delaware County Democratic congressman, announced that his organization was starting a national campaign to control corporate political spending by changing the Constitution. (LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE / Associated Press, file)
Posted: January 18, 2012

The self-styled reform group Common Cause is launching a drive to curb the role of big money in politics - by amending the Constitution.

The idea was first floated in November by a group of Democrats in Congress who were unhappy with the rising influence of corporate-funded "super PACs." It has not gained much traction.

But during Monday night's debate in South Carolina, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seemed to fan the flames, saying, "We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth."

Romney moderated that position by Tuesday morning. But at about the same time, Bob Edgar, Common Cause's president and a former Delaware County Democratic congressman, announced that his organization was starting a national campaign to control corporate political spending by changing the Constitution.

The liberal-leaning group is proposing an amendment that would allow states and Congress to regulate campaign contributions in ways the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2010.

Super PACs are the increasingly influential political action committees created after the high court ruled that limiting independent political spending by corporations and labor unions violated those entities' free-speech rights. The decision in Citizens United allowed unlimited donations, provided the money is spent by an independent committee that does not coordinate with the candidate. Previously, corporate and union spending in campaigns had been limited by federal law.

The practical result of the 2010 ruling has been a huge increase in attack ads funded by the outside PACs, most recently in the run-up to Saturday's South Carolina GOP presidential primary. The super PACs are often run by candidates' former advisers, with all involved taking pains to say the attacks are not coordinated or authorized by the candidates.

Of course, amending the Constitution is extraordinarily difficult. A proposed amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate, and then be approved by at least three-quarters of the 50 state legislatures. The last serious effort ended in defeat in 1982 when the proposed Equal Rights Amendment failed to garner the necessary margin.

Common Cause board chairman Robert Reich, the former Clinton administration labor secretary, said Tuesday: "We're under no illusion here. The fight is going to take a very long time to win."

To date, the effort has not enlisted any Republican or conservative support, but Edgar said the group would be engaging in outreach.

One person who isn't on board is the former governor of Massachusetts.

"Gov. Romney believes the Supreme Court was correct to defend the constitutional right of all people to speak on political matters, whether individually or through corporations," spokesman Ryan Williams said in an e-mail.

While Romney is against "unaccountable Super PACs," Williams said, he is in favor of allowing corporations, unions, and individuals "to contribute what they wish directly to campaigns."

What Common Cause wants is ironclad limits on corporate political donations. Reich and Edgar said unlimited corporate money results in undue corporate influence over the political system.

"Reform is not going to happen from the inside, because insiders all benefit from the current system," Reich said.

Edgar said the organization hopes to get initiatives supporting a constitutional amendment on the ballots this November in three states where laws and election timetables make it easier - Colorado, Montana, and Massachusetts. The organization also plans to lobby state legislatures to pass measures calling on Congress to approve an amendment.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

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