Commission documents flood of campaign cash
Says addressing Citizens United will take more time
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
In the decade before the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, spending on Massachusetts elections and ballot initiatives totaled $260 million. In the decade since the ruling, Massachusetts political spending soared to $700 million.
Those figures are one example of many a commission offered in a new report to describe the growing role of money in politics. The Citizens United case, commissioners say, opened the door for a flood of spending that has altered the dynamics of democracy.
Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin in 2018, creating a Citizens Commission and tasking it with recommending how the state can support U.S. constitutional amendments limiting the role of money in politics and the influence of corporations.
“It may be our last, best hope to restore sensible campaign finance regulation and to rescue American democracy from the corporate stranglehold currently choking it,” Panagopoulos, who chairs Northeastern University’s political science department, said.
The commission found that political spending is significantly stratified with the bulk coming from large-dollar donors and outside groups.
In 2018, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics the commission cited, 0.47 percent of the American population made political contributions of $200 or more, but those donations accounted for 71 percent of the money individuals gave.
While Massachusetts is not immune, it has not been affected as dramatically by independent expenditures as other battleground states or those with close races, commissioners said. For example, the report found that outside groups spent more than $92 million on the 2016 U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire between Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan.
The current dynamic has rendered many voters cynical and convinced that their voices will not be heard, supporters of an amendment said.
“Ten years ago, we saw the Citizens United decision, which unleashed the floodgates for dark money and the influence of some at the expense of many,” said Attorney General Maura Healey, who spoke at the commission’s Wednesday event. “Ten years of allowing concentrated amounts of money from an extremely small portion of the American people, allowing that to dominate our political system. It’s not fair, it’s not right and we need to fix it.”
While the first report affirmed that the commission — and many attendees at its several public hearings — believes amending the U.S. Constitution is the best way to create a fairer electoral system, the group plans to file a final report by June 30 digging into specific strategies for accomplishing that goal.
“We don’t want to fix something and break something else,” Panagopoulos said. “We don’t want in our effort to impose restrictions on corporate rights to remove rights from other types of similar associations, churches and unions and things like that, that might prevent them from having access to rights like freedom of association and other things that might be implicated by our recommendations.”
The commission named three potential pathways to a constitutional amendment: securing enough votes in Congress with leadership from the all-Democrat Massachusetts congressional delegation, triggering a limited-purpose convention following a request from two-thirds of state legislatures, or a national “Citizens Congress,” which it said more than 20 other states are pursuing.
Several resolutions (H 3208 / S 2163) in the Legislature would declare that Massachusetts wants Congress to approve a constitutional amendment allowing greater limits on political spending and affirming that “artificial entities” such as corporations do not enjoy the same rights as individuals.
Rep. Carmine Gentile, who authored the House resolution and sits on the Citizens Commission, told the News Service that he expects the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs to poll the proposals and report them out favorably “as early as today or tomorrow.”
The committee’s House chair, Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, did not confirm or deny Gentile’s expectation, writing in a statement to the News Service that the committee is still considering all legislation before it but is aware of the level of support the proposal enjoys.
Campbell’s co-chair, Sen. Walter Timilty, declined to say definitively whether the committee would advance the resolutions but added that he is a co-sponsor of the Senate version and is “optimistic” about their futures.
A similar resolution received a favorable report last session but was amended in the Senate into something that “wasn’t quite what we were looking for,” Gentile said.
“Probably the biggest sticking point in the last session was the concern of asking for a limited convention,” Gentile said. “Four of the last 10 amendments to the United States Constitution started out with asking for a convention, so the commission’s determined that it’s the way to go. I’m hoping that determination will assuage some of the fears of my colleagues about it.”
Gentile’s resolution has 82 cosponsors, including several Republicans such as Falmouth Rep. David Vieira and Weymouth Sen. Patrick O’Connor. The Senate version of the resolution offered by Sen. Jamie Eldridge has 27 cosponsors.
Jeff Clements, CEO of the American Promise group that is advocating for a constitutional amendment and a member of the commission, said his organization believes they can achieve consensus on the language of a constitutional amendment in the next two years and secure ratification by July 4, 2026.
At the national level, Clements said, opinion about a proposed amendment tends to cleave along party lines with Democrats supporting greater restrictions and Republicans opposing it. States often see a broader range of support, he said.
“The challenge is we’re fixing a broken system through a broken system,” Clements said.
The commission’s work drew criticism Wednesday from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, which said there are no Republican members on the commission. The group linked the commission and the 2018 ballot question to American Promise, the nonprofit led by Clements working to pass a constitutional amendment, and said MassFiscal board member Helen Brady, the 2018 Republican nominee for state auditor, was rejected when she applied to be on the commission.“It’s unfortunate that despite being sympathetic to some of the broad goals of American Promise, I was not given a voice on this commission,” Brady said in a press release. “I wonder if perhaps I was not accepted because I will raise issues that do not align with the majority of those who are on this commission? I have no set agenda and always willing to hear both sides of an argument, but sadly today’s outcome is a rubber stamp for what Beacon Hill politicians want and that does not always reflect the will of the people.”
Clements responded to criticism raised by MassFiscal on Twitter by replying that Republican Gov. Charlie Baker appointed three members of the commission and arguing the group was “trying to stoke a phony partisan divide.”