A House committee passed a resolution to the House floor today that calls on Congress to limit spending on political campaigns.
The House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee voted 5 to 4 on HJ10, which urges Congress to pass a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and send it to the states for ratification. The amendment would declare that “corporations and other legal entities” — such as unions — are not people, and give Congress and state legislatures regulatory authority over political spending.
The bill must be brought up for its first vote on the House floor tomorrow or it will die. Friday is the last day for bills to be considered for a first floor vote in the chamber of origin.
If created, such an amendment would nullify the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission decision. In that 2010 case, the court ruled that funds spent on politics but not on a specific candidate should be protected as free speech. The decision made it possible for certain nonprofits, registered as “social welfare” organizations, or 501(c)(4)s, to spend money campaigning for or against candidates.
Eighteen other states have passed similar resolutions. If they get to 33, Congress would have to act on the amendment, UW law professor Ken Chestek said. In the 2016 election cycle, Chestek lost a race for House District 46 in Laramie.
Al Simpson, who served 20 years as one of Wyoming’s senators, submitted a letter as testimony to the committee. “Either we are a country that makes decisions based on the common good, or one where the size of your wallet determines the worth of your ideas,” he wrote.
Simpson also wrote that the Wyoming Constitution specifies that corporations are subject to the control of the state and treats them differently than individual people.
“What this joint resolution does is remind our friends at the Federal level that Wyoming is right. And that our constitution is right,” Rep. Mike Gierau (D, HD16, Teton), a sponsor on HJ10, said.
Despite Wyoming’s constitution, organizations on both sides of the aisle have taken advantage of laws that allow 501(c)(4)s to spend money on political campaigns. This type of spending is often referred to as “dark money” because under IRS rules, 501(c)(4)s do not have to disclose their donors. Thus it’s difficult to trace the individuals and groups spending money on politics.
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly said she was “vehemently” in favor of the resolution, and against the Citizens United decision.
Both Connolly and Chestek testified about negative political mailers sent against their opponents during their campaigns. Though the mailers sought to help their candidacies, Connolly and Chestek said they were dismayed to see the negativity enter their campaign and that it occurred without their knowledge.
“I was getting contact from my supporters saying ‘why are you going negative?’” Chestek said. The mailers they referred to came from two groups: Women Lead Wyoming and Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance.
One mailer warned voters that Chestek’s opponent, Rep. Bill Haley (R, HD-46, Centennial), wanted to seize public lands. The flier urged voters to choose Chestek, and was sent by Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance.
“He doesn’t want to seize your public lands,” Chestek said. “We agree on that issue.”
Both Women Lead Wyoming and Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance were projects of Forward Wyoming Advocacy, a left-leaning 501 (c)(4). A non-profit registered as a 501 (c)(4) can engage in election campaigns and spend money to support one candidate against another, provided they do not coordinate directly with a candidate or their organization.
The Wyoming Republican Party charged that Forward Wyoming Advocacy was working in cooperation with ELLA WY, a political consulting agency hired by Chestek and other Democratic candidates. The link between the two groups was explored in a November WyoFile story.
Chestek said there was no truth to the claim that ELLA WY and Forward Wyoming Advocacy were coordinating, which would be a violation of campaign laws.
“There was no coordination,” Chestek said. “I had no idea [Women Lead Wyoming and Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance] were going to do this.”
Though HJ10 relates to the federal government and not Wyoming, Chestek said that the resolution’s passage would send a message to the state as well.
“It reaffirms Wyoming values for sure,” he said.
The resolution, HJ10, was not considered by the full House by the end of the day Friday, Feb. 3. Failing to make that deadline, it is now dead for this session. Rep. Gierau said he was disappointed there was no chance to debate the topic on the floor. — Ed.