MONTPELIER -- Vermont and the U.S. Senate’s most senior member are initiating efforts to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent campaign finance rulings but taking different tacks.
The Vermont Legislature became the first in the country last month to pass a resolution that calls for a constitutional convention to reverse the high court’s rulings that critics say trend toward looser limits on campaign contributions to the unfair advantage of wealthy donors and big business.
Sen. Patrick Leahy has called a June 3 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, to address the rulings. But he said Thursday he’d rather see Congress craft an amendment, rather than have a constitutional convention that could be open to any topic. He said either route faces long odds, but it was a good idea to "start the conversation."
"I’ve always worried about a constitutional convention that could be opened up to all kinds of things -- a constitutional amendment that would do away with most of our environmental laws or ... might dramatically change who’s allowed to vote," he said.
The Democrat from Vermont, who will mark 40 years in the Senate in January, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he’s interested in a tightly drawn constitutional amendment to reverse the effects of the court’s decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases.
The rulings favor arguments that most campaign money caps are impermissible limitations on free speech.
Three versions of a campaign finance amendment have been offered in the Senate and 11 in the House. All the proposals seek to reverse the effects of the Citizens United decision of 2010 and the McCutcheon decision this year.
In the earlier ruling, the court said government restrictions on corporate independent expenditures on elections were unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment. The McCutcheon decision held that aggregate limits on campaign contributions to multiple candidates and political action committees also are unconstitutional.
A constitutional convention as requested by the Vermont Legislature would be the first since the framers met in Philadelphia in 1787. All 27 amendments have been proposed by Congress. Two-thirds of the states -- 34 -- would have to call for a convention and three-quarters -- 38 -- would be needed to ratify an amendment by convention.
By the congressional route, two-thirds of both the House and Senate would have to support an amendment to reverse court decisions that most Republicans have cheered -- an unlikely prospect in the near term.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of three senators offering a campaign finance amendment, said Thursday he agreed with Leahy that congressional action would be the better route than a constitutional convention. The Vermont independent called Citizens United "the most disastrous court decision in the modern history of America."
Vermont state Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, and a key backer of the state resolution, said she would welcome congressional action.
"If we saw something like that coming from Congress, I would be thrilled. But we haven’t seen that happen," she said.
Lyons said the 17th Amendment of 1913, allowing elections of U.S. senators by popular vote rather than by state legislatures, was adopted by Congress only after nearly enough states had called for a convention to trigger one.
"Maybe that’s what we need to do so that Congress wakes up," she said.