Kerry backs amendment to restore giving rules

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2010

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WASHINGTON - As congressional Democrats mobilize to limit the impact of last month’s Supreme Court decision gutting decades of campaign finance law, Senator John Kerry joined calls yesterday for states to go a step further by amending the Constitution.

Such an action, Kerry acknowledged, would be dramatic but he said it is necessary to restore restrictions on corporate influence in politics.

“We need a constitutional amendment to make it clear once and for all that corporations do not have the same free speech rights as individuals,’’ Kerry testified at a Senate hearing.

Amending the Constitution is a daunting process that could drag on for years, requiring a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states. The document has been amended only 27 times in 220 years, the last in 1992. And any attempts to amend First Amendment rights of free speech would be particularly difficult.

In the House, Representative Donna Edwards, Democrat of Maryland, and Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, introduced legislation calling for such an amendment yesterday. Thomas Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, said he plans to file a similar bill in the Senate.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are hastily piecing together legislation to provide a more immediate response to the high court’s 5-4 ruling, which held that many restrictions on corporate donations to political causes infringed on the First Amendment.

Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Lowell, said yesterday that she would introduce legislation restricting corporations from using government money, such as bailout funds, for political purposes. Tsongas said she would seek to attach the provision to a more sweeping bill being prepared by Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, is working on similar legislation in the Senate.

“We’re pouring billions into corporations in order to keep them functional. We just want to be sure none of those tax dollars go to influencing the political process,’’ Tsongas said.

Despite the fervor of Democrats, Congress’s power to change the court decision is limited, said Richard H. Fallon, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University.

“They will not be able to do anything that would overcome the main thrust and effect of the decision,’’ he said. Groups that want restrictions on campaign financing have expressed support for a constitutional amendment, but many lawmakers say the idea might be unwise. Even beginning such an unpredictable process in a polarized political climate could open the floodgates to other amendments, they said.