In a recent post of mine, I proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit political donations — by corporations — to sitting members of Congress and the White House, aka “legal bribery:”
Section 1: No elected member of the legislative or executive branch shall accept money, in-kind donations, offers of employment or anything of value from non-citizens of the United States.
Section 2. Nothing contained in this Amendment shall be construed to allow Congress or a State to make any law abridging the freedom of the press.
Go read my previous post; it goes into more detail about how this might work and why we need it.
For now, I want to address the tactical methods whereby the people could enact this amendment despite the Congress’ hesitation to restrict the ready flow of donations into their campaign coffers.
First, read the text of Article V of the Constitution:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
…and here’s what it means:
If at least two-thirds of the legislatures of the states so request, Congress is required to call a convention for the purpose of proposing amendments. This provision, many scholars argue, allows for a check on the power of the Congress to limit potential constitutional amendments. In fact, several proponents of constitutional revision, such as Larry J. Sabato in his book A More Perfect Constitution believe this is the only feasible way for large-scale constitutional change to occur.
This seems to suggest that state legislatures are the pressure point onto which public opinion must be applied. It would seem that the best way to affect this action would be to make it a campaign issue during each state’s legislative election campaign. In other words, force legislative candidates to sign a pledge that they will vote to call a convention for the purpose of proposing this amendment. No pledge, no vote. Michael Pertschuk wrote about this sort of citizen activism in The DeMarco Factor. And of course Americans for Tax Reform’s (i.e., Grover Norquist) “Tax Pledge” is probably the most famous example on the other side.
But are there any historical precedents for this sort of grassroots activism at the Constitutional level?
The state legislatures have, in times past, used their power to apply for a national convention in order to pressure Congress into proposing the desired amendment. For example, the movement to amend the Constitution to provide for the direct election of U.S. Senators began to see such proposals regularly pass the House of Representatives only to die in the Senate from the early 1890s onward. As time went by, more and more state legislatures adopted resolutions demanding that a convention be called, thus pressuring the Senate to finally relent and approve what later became the Seventeenth Amendment for fear that such a convention—if permitted to assemble—might stray to include issues above and beyond just the direct election of U.S. Senators.
There are “pro’s” and “con’s” to this approach:
- On the “pro” side, I think you’d quickly find that such a movement would gather support up and down the political spectrum, from “tea party” Republicans to progressive Democrats.
- On the “con” side would be the fear that the movement would be opening up a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.
Also: would it happen soon enough to make a real difference? Well, like the old saying goes: the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is right now. We need to start this at the state level during the 2012 election cycle to maximize the leverage over the mid-term elections of 2014. If successful, we could expect to see the amendment by the 2016 election cycle — at the earliest.
Also: Is this amendment the best way to end “legalized bribery?” Well, it’s a start. There are all sorts of loopholes that would need to be dealt with down the line — with additional amendments if necessary. The most obvious loophole is that those challenging the incumbent would be exempt from this amendment. The best reason for allowing this is that it levels the playing field without resorting to tricks like term limits. But the downside is that corporations would simply fund the challengers in order to sink the incumbents. The solution? Public financing of all candidates. Read this post for more details and some fresh ideas on how this could work.
But public financing is a separate battle. A similar movement would have to be organized to deal with that without slowing this one down.
In summary, here are the steps you’d want to follow at the state level:
- Run a reputable poll showing broad support for the measure. As I stated earlier, it shouldn’t be hard to show.
- Gather citizen support — via town hall meetings, for example — to vote FOR any legislator who “signs the pledge” to call for a Constitutional amendment in the next session of the state legislature after the election. Similarly, gather citizen support to vote AGAINST any legislator who refuses to sign the pledge — or breaks their promise once elected.
- It may well be that it takes more than one election cycle to get the necessary votes in the state legislature. If so, repeat the cycle in the next election campaign.
We should have done this a long time ago. No matter. Let’s work together now to make it happen. There’s a lot at stake. The hour is getting late. The sooner we start, the better.