GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 16, 2012

City adds backing to political spending limits

By Steven Fletcher and Alan Burke Staff Writers
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Constitutional amendments aren’t easy to pass, but the difficulty isn’t stopping area residents from getting behind an amendment aimed at limiting corporate political spending.

The effort started this fall has included city council resolutions, including now in Gloucester and town meeting votes, including in Rockport, in support of the amendment, along with a nonbinding question that will appear on some of the Massachusetts ballots.

That question, and the resolutions, are all targeting an amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, a decision that lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions by recognizing them as if they are individuals.

So far, 72 communities have passed resolutions asking for the U.S. Congress to pass and send the amendment to the states to be ratified, with Gloucester’s council unanimously backing one in a motion put forward by City Councilor Paul McGeary.

While the council’s support for an amendment may not have much of an effect, McGeary said it’s an important issue to get behind.

“It’s not that we as the Gloucester city councilors can do much to pass a constitutional amendment, but it’s an expression of sentiment,” McGeary said — sentiment for a cause he said is worth fighting for.

McGeary said Cape Ann has a sizable population of “good-government” types — people, he said, who believe that government can do good, but that citizens should make it behave well.

“The mixture of money and politics is poison and it does need to be fairly and tightly controlled,” McGeary said.

He said Andrew Innes, a West Gloucester resident and member of Common Cause, a nonprofit, non-partisan entity that advocates for accountable government, suggested the motion.

Rockport residents, meanwhile, passed a similar resolution at the end of their Fall Town Meeting in September. The resolution was brought forward by Michael O’Connor and Nancy Goodman. They said they hoped to have Rockport support the measure.

A nonbinding ballot question will appear on the ballot for the November election. The question asks if voters want the state representative from the district call on Congress to propose the amendment.

The effort has sparked passion on both sides of the issue with its intent to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, with all of this beginning with the McCain-Feingold Act.

The Act was passed by Congress in 2002, and designed to limit the ability of corporations and unions to make donations to political campaigns, particularly in the month prior to a presidential election. But in 2009, an appeal to the Supreme Court by a group called Citizens United convinced a narrow majority of justices that speech emanating from a corporation could not be limited in this way any more than speech from an individual.

A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds votes in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as ratification by two-thirds of the legislatures of the states. Two-thirds of the state legislatures can also call for a constitutional convention to amend the document, but the process has not been used since the original Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Not all agree. Salem State professor Kani Sathasivam, chairman of the political science department, said he believes the proposal is an assault on the cherished right of free speech. He believes the court simply sustained the time-honored right to participate in democracy.

Sathasivam’s specialty is foreign relations, but he takes a keen interest in civil rights. An immigrant from Sri Lanka, he left his homeland 25 years ago at the beginning of a ruinous civil war. He has no interest in ever going back.

“I fled that country for precisely the reason that I could not speak freely,” he said. It’s the contrast in America that inspires his devotion to the Bill of Rights, including the prohibition “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech. I take those rights very seriously and consider them very precious.”

Sathasivam, 45, asserts that such a Constitutional amendment would be pointless. Corporations, he points out, contribute to candidates on both sides of the aisle, and to both liberal and conservative causes, while independent super PACs allow corporations to support ballot issues and candidates without breaking laws that sharply limit the amounts that can be given directly to their campaigns.

He points to the workers and managers at corporations to make the point that they certainly are people. Meanwhile, he sees transparency as the solution to unease over spending by corporations; people should know who’s doing the spending, he says.

Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at sfletcher@gloucestertimes.com.

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@gloucestertimes.com.