If Colorado voters were hoping for a new crackdown on campaign spending when they approved Amendment 65 in the November election, they’re in for a disappointment — the amendment was a symbolic effort, not a practical one.
Amendment 65, which pertains to Congress’ power to federally regulate campaign finance and spending constraints, passed in Colorado by 74 percent. The amendment passed in El Paso County by 71 percent.
The amendment was a much lesser-publicized state ballot question in November that ran alongside the presidential race and Amendment 64, which legalized limited marijuana possession and sales in Colorado. Consequently, the amendment has generated confusion in many quarters.
Amendment 65 asked voters if Colorado’s nine members of Congress should be “instructed” to support amending the U.S. Constitution to give Congress the power to limit campaign contributions and spending. But it doesn’t require the nine to support such an amendment.
So it has no legal effect. Just a political one.
“The main thing is to get a lot of pressure from cities and states onto members of Congress,” said Danny Katz, the director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, or CoPIRG. CoPIRG was heavily involved in the campaign to get the measure passed.
“It’s an important message to send, and it’s better than nothing,” Katz said.
The amendment doesn’t specify financial limits that should be put on federal campaigns, just that Congress should have the power to do so.
“It’s empty posturing,” said Josh Dunn, associate political science professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “For the people who really supported it, it makes them feel good, but beyond that, it doesn’t do much.”
Nevertheless, Amendment 65 has been effective to a limited extent. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents Colorado’s 7th Congressional District, has signed on to a pair of campaign finance bills that would accomplish what CoPIRG is looking for.
“The people of Colorado spoke. I listened to them,” Perlmutter said in a statement.
Colorado has extensive campaign finance rules for the governor’s race and state legislative races, among others. But there aren’t enough constraints on federal races to satisfy many activists. And Amendment 65 is part of a broad national campaign to address that.
Katz said the inspiration for Amendment 65 was the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which held that Congress didn’t have the power to restrict campaign spending by corporations. CoPIRG and many other organizations were outraged, and are working to overturn the ruling.
Support for Amendment 65 in Colorado’s congressional delegation split down party lines. Four of Colorado’s five Democrats issued statements supporting aggressive campaign finance reform, and three of the state’s four Republicans were either dubious or said campaign finance regulations have been dealt with.
“This issue has been settled by the courts and I am not inclined to introduce or support legislation attempting to limit freedom of speech as the Supreme Court has defined it,” said Congressman Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican.
Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Pueblo and the west slope in CD-3, agreed with Lamborn. Tipton’s press secretary, Josh Green, said in an email that the congressman “empathizes” with the frustration of Coloradans, but that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend money in campaigns.
Colorado’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, have both sponsored campaign finance reform bills in the past, and said they would likely back such bills again. Boulder’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis said the process of amending the Constitution is “long and arduous,” but that Coloradans “should take heart in the overwhelming support for Amendment 65.”
But campaign finance reform is a ways off, said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone.
“While Sen. Udall remains hopeful that deal (on campaign finance reform) can be reached, there has not yet been a clear path to the supermajority required for a constitutional amendment,” said Saccone.
The first bill Congressman Perlmutter is co-sponsoring, H.J. Resolution 88, would overturn the law that corporations are considered “people,” and have the same rights as citizens. The bill would allow states and Congress to regulate their actions regarding campaign finance.
The second bill, H.J. Resolution 90, would give Congress the power to install federal campaign finance regulations, and prohibit corporations and other private entities from spending money in campaigns.
Even if the two bills find support in Congress, their success is a long shot.
Any proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution must first pass out of Congress with two-thirds support in the 435-member House of Representatives and 100-member Senate.
The amendment then must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. (Amendment 65 also instructs the Colorado legislature to ratify the Constitutional amendment.)
The Constitution also could be amended if two-thirds of the states called a constitutional convention, but that has never happened.
The Constitution has been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights — the Constitution’s first 10 amendments — passed in 1791.
More comments from congressional delegation
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn,
R-CD 5: “Corporations and unions are entitled to the same freedom as individuals to speak out, especially when the government has the power to tax, regulate, and even destroy them.”
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet spokeswoman Kristin Lynch: “Sen. Bennet believes we need to reform our campaign finance system. That’s why he introduced a constitutional amendment, along with Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, last November to give Congress and the States the power to regulate campaign finance.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall spokesman Mike Saccone: “Sen. Udall certainly supports overturning Citizens United and has been an advocate for bringing additional transparency to secretive political organization that appeared in the wake of the court’s decision. For example, he co-sponsored the DISCLOSE Act. (That bill succumbed to a filibuster over the summer.) That is just one of the numerous bills Congress has considered to address and overturn Citizens United.”
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-CD 2: “I have long supported campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of special interests in politics, including legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act, the Fair Elections Now Act and the Grassroots Democracy Act … I will look closely at proposals that would overturn the wrongly decided Citizens United decision and weigh their ability to reduce the influence of special interests in our elections while also protecting our cherished right to free speech.”
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-CD 3, press secretary Josh Green: “While Congressman Tipton empathizes with the decision of Colorado voters and shares some of the same frustrations with campaign finance, the Supreme Court has already settled the matter by defining freedom of speech to include corporations and unions, allowing them to make campaign contributions.”
U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-CD 4: “I completely understand why the American people are frustrated with our current campaign finance system. It lacks transparency and accountability. Any fix that Congress looks at must not restrict speech.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD 7: “The 2010 and 2012 elections demonstrated how outside groups will spend millions of dollars without disclosing their donors or their interests. That’s wrong, and it’s time to take action.”
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