WASHINGTON — Senate leaders presented divergent views on the influence of money in politics Tuesday amidst a push by liberal leaders, including the entire Vermont congressional delegation, to restrict political spending.
A constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 19, was proposed last June by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. The measure comes in response to recent Supreme Court decisions loosening restrictions on election spending, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
These rulings struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions and saw the rise of super PACs, or political action committees.
“I have heard from countless Vermonters about how the Supreme Court’s decisions threaten the constitutional rights of hardworking Americans who want to have their voices heard, not drowned in a sea of corporate special interests,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee since 2007.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addressed Leahy’s committee Tuesday — the first time majority and minority leaders testified together in the Judiciary Committee’s history, Leahy said.
The division over the amendment has split down party lines, with Reid testifying in favor of the amendment while McConnell charged that the resolution would “weaken the First Amendment.” None of the 42 co-sponsors of the proposed amendment is a Republican.
“The goal here is to stir up one party’s political base so they’ll show up in November by complaining loudly about certain Americans exercising their free speech and association rights,” McConnell said during his testimony.
In addition to Leahy, the rest of the Vermont delegation has called for constitutional constraints on election spending.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., a co-sponsor of the current Senate resolution, said in a statement Tuesday, “There is no single issue more important to the needs of ordinary Americans than the issue of money in politics.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has co-sponsored three similar constitutional amendments in the House.
In a letter to Leahy signed Tuesday, Welch commended the Senate hearings as “an important step forward for a nationwide movement to restore the balance of power to the people for whom this democracy was founded.”
Roughly a dozen protesters attended the hearing, holding signs in favor of the amendment and covering their mouths with blue tape. One man was removed from the chamber for disrupting the hearing.
Vermont has seen an increasing number of PACs since the Citizens United decision in 2010. Nearly 70 PACs were active in the state during the 2012 elections, according to filings submitted to the Vermont secretary of state’s office.
Vermont PACs spent more than $1.75 million in 2012; it’s unclear how much was spent by PACs based outside the state. Vermonters First, a PAC that spent more than $1 million on conservative candidates, was the most active in 2012, according to state filings.
“I would be surprised if we didn’t see a further influx of PAC money in Vermont and across the country,” Secretary of State James Condos said in an email.
“Unfortunately, decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon are creating a climate that encourages PAC activity and ties the hands of state Legislatures when it comes to limiting the influx of money,” he said. “Our best solution is to increase disclosure.”
Vermont election legislation passed this year increased the frequency of campaign finance disclosures for PACs. The trigger for finance reporting was also increased from $500 to $1,000 for PACs this year.
The Vermont ballot in November will include candidates for the state Senate and House; Welch is also up for re-election.
As of March 15, the most recent election filing date, PACs had already spent more than $250,000 on these races. Vermonters First accounted for more than $100,000 of that spending.
Officials with Vermonters First did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, said that although money has recently proliferated in Vermont politics, its impact in such a small state is negligible.
“We get to know our politicians up close and personal at town hall meetings and state fairs,” Nelson said. “As a consequence, the infusion of money has relatively little effect in Vermont.”
Jasper Craven is affiliated with the Boston University journalism program.MORE IN Central Vermont
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