Our Opinion: Citizens United a formidable foe

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"The challenge is, we're fixing a broken system through a broken system," said a member of the state commission exploring a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision on campaign finance.

The commission's task, while worthy, could hardly be more daunting.

The Supreme Court's decision, by the familiar 5-4 margin, ruled that corporations, unions and nonprofits could no longer be prohibited from contributing to federal elections. The decision opened the floodgates to special-interest money, largely through so-called superPACs, that reduced the impact on campaigns of smaller donations from average voters. It also enabled donors to hide their identities, making it difficult to determine which candidates they were trying to influence with large campaign checks.

In 2018, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin creating a Citizens Commission tasked with finding ways to advance a constitutional amendment limiting the role of money in politics and the influence of corporations, which have taken disproportionate advantage of the Citizens United ruling. The Eagle endorsed the ballot question, citing the corrupting influence of big money donated largely in the dark.

Last week, the 15-member Citizens Commission made its first report, which according to the State House News Service provided examples of the impact of the Supreme Court's ill-advised decision. In the 2018 election campaign, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics cited by the commission, 0.47 percent of the American population accounted for 71 percent of the money individuals gave. These disturbing numbers certainly back those who warned a decade ago of the devastating impact Citizens United would have on political campaigns. While the commission said that Massachusetts has not been as dramatically affected as other states because of the lack of close federal races between Democrats and Republicans, it noted that outside groups spent $92 million in 2016 on a closely contested Senate race in neighboring New Hampshire.

The commission has not yet attempted to craft a constitutional amendment but has explored three potential pathways to get such an amendment before Congress and state legislatures. One is to have the all-Democrat Massachusetts delegation lead a campaign for an amendment in Congress. The second is formation of a so-called limited-purpose convention following a request from two-thirds of state legislatures. The third, which is already being pursued by 20 states, is creation of a "Citizens Congress" advocating the amendment. Advocates of the third alternative believe it is the best way around the simple reality that the Republican Party, which currently controls the Senate, is generally opposed to the effort to overturn Citizens United and put the brakes on corporate donations.

The difficulty given current political realities of putting a constitutional amendment before state legislatures and Congress and then have it pass muster with all parties by a two-thirds vote prompted the quote above from Jeff Clement, CEO of the American Promise group that advocates for the constitutional amendment and a commission member. American Promise believes that it can achieve consensus on the language of a constitutional amendment within two years and secure ratification by July 4, 2026. That's optimistic, but there is no point in even undertaking such a daunting task without being optimistic about the outcome, especially if you're an unpaid Citizens Commission member. This challenge is about as formidable as Frodo the hobbit's task of returning the dangerously powerful ring to Mordor and destroying it in "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy. But, Frodo did pull it off.

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