County council urged to back curbs on corporate campaign contributions

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It doesn't happen often, but Allegheny County Council finds itself part of a national debate over campaign spending.

Seven speakers went before council last week urging members to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would bar corporations from making campaign contributions. The issue was referred to council's government reform committee.

Thomas Dufour, of Whitehall, told council that the voices of individual voters will be drowned out unless the Constitution is amended to prohibit corporations from supporting candidates.

Ruling in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court threw out provisions in the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that limited corporate and union political expenditures.

The court's decision threatened to change the United States into a place where "the brute force of monetary influence" overpowers virtue and talent, Mr. Dufour said.

Jonathan Robison, of Oakland, told council members he feared that the country was moving to an election system based on "one person, one vote to one dollar, one vote."

The majority of the justices found that unions and corporations, because they represented groups of individuals, had the same free-speech rights as individuals to fund campaign advertisements.

The court's decision was followed by the creation of an "Amend 2012" effort to push for a change in the Constitution.

Council members John DeFazio, D-Shaler, and Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights, on Tuesday introduced a motion calling on council to support "formulation and ratification of a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission."

The government reform committee will review the proposal and make a recommendation to the full council.

Amending the Constitution is a long, difficult and rare process. Since the document was adopted in 1787, it has been amended just 27 times, with the first 10 amendments adopted in a group as the Bill of Rights.

A constitutional change requires votes by two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate. Then a proposed change would have to be adopted by three-fourths of state legislatures to become effective.

The practical effect of the Supreme Court's decision was to say that corporations were people, Ms. Green Hawkins said. Mr. DeFazio called that ruling very dangerous to the political system.

Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, took an opposing view. "Citizens United" expanded the political rights of both corporations and labor unions, she said. "If you are condemning [spending by] corporations, you have to condemn labor unions," she said.

So-called "527 organizations," which can raise and spend money for issue advocacy, have long been used to influence elections. Many of the current opponents of the "Citizens United" decision had no complaints about heavy political spending by liberal-leaning billionaires like George Soros, she said.

County council's support for the constitutional amendment would send a clear message that corporations should not have the same political rights as people, said Marcia Bandes of Squirrel Hill.

"If money is speech, how do I compete with Exxon Mobil?" Lynda Park, of Mt. Lebanon, asked. If the effects of the Citizens United decision were not reversed by an amendment, county council members someday could find themselves facing a barrage of negative political ads.

"What would you do if a company spent $1 million on a campaign against you?" she asked.

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Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159. First Published April 9, 2012 12:00 AM


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