Long Way to Go for a Constitutional Convention

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Legislature has been slow to consider a joint resolution calling for a national Article V constitutional convention to write an amendment on campaign finance reform.

House Joint Resolution 120, by state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, calls for a convention to propose “an amendment to the federal constitution that will permanently protect free and fair elections in America.” It would assign representatives from each congressional district in Texas as delegates to the convention. Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, and Rep. Joseph Moody, D-El Paso, are joint authors of the bill.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to amend the Constitution by two-thirds vote. It also gives the states the power to call for a convention to amend the Constitution if two-thirds of the states can muster support for the measure.

HJR 120 supports similar measures introduced in other states, including Vermont, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Triggering an Article V convention will require 34 states to pass similar measures.

HJR 120 faces an uphill battle in Texas. It has failed to receive a hearing during the 85th legislative session, and “the window is closing,” Hinojosa’s chief of staff Doug Greco said Tuesday.

Wolf-PAC, a nonprofit political action committee, was the key grassroots organization lobbying for HJR 120, Greco said.

“I was asked to file the bill by Wolf-PAC, and did it because I believe in curbing the undue influence of money in politics,” Hinojosa said in a statement. “I look forward on continuing to work on this issue in the future.”

Wolf-PAC was created by Cenk Uygur, founder of the online news show “The Young Turks.” Uygur has publicized the organization’s progress in various states on the news show, but has had little to no direct involvement in Wolf-PAC’s operations.

Wolf-PAC seeks to enact campaign finance reform through grassroots political activism, Texas state director Todd Jagger said in a Tuesday email. The organization has chapters across the country and 11,000 members in Texas alone, Jagger said.

“We talk to our legislators and have real discussions about how we can make our elections work better for the average citizen once and for all,” Jagger said in an email. “Sure, we also do some phone banking to make voters aware of the legislation, sometimes we do canvassing, but the core of our method is based on direct citizen engagement with our legislators.”

HJR 120 “simply says that Texas sees the need for a national conversation, somewhere other than Congress, on how we can make our elections work for the people again,” Jagger said. “HJR 120 doesn’t dictate a specific solution, it provides the ability to find one as a nation.”

Jagger acknowledged the difficult road ahead. “The Texas Legislative process makes it a lot easier to kill legislation than to pass it,” he said. “It does make it harder that Texas only meets every two years, but we have done some amazing work this session.”

Gov. Greg Abbott’s own call for an Article V convention was a double-edged sword for campaign finance reform. Abbott suggested nine amendments via constitutional convention, including a balanced budget amendment and one to allow a two-thirds majority of states to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Jagger said Abbott’s proposal caused “so much publicity, pressure and controversy” that it’s “made it a lot harder to rise above the noise.”

Calling HJR 120 “the only bipartisan Article V resolution in the Texas Legislature,” Jagger said the resolution has “widespread support” from both parties, “but there have been a lot of factors that have made getting traction more difficult this session.”

Despite the deeply divided national electorate, Americans seem united in believing that big money wields too much influence in politics. Eighty-four percent of respondents said money has too much influence in political campaigns, according to a New York Times poll in June 2015. That poll reported 98 percent agreement that campaign finance reform was needed, and 46 percent called for a complete overhaul.

Governmental bodies at the national level have been hesitant to adopt such reforms.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders minced no words in his 2013 bill calling for a constitutional amendment “to restore the rights of the American people that were taken away by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case and related decisions, to protect the integrity of our elections, and to limit the corrosive influence of money in our democratic process.”

Sanders’ bill stated that “the ability to make contributions and expenditures to influence the outcome of public elections belong only to natural persons,” not to corporate entities. The bill went nowhere.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that that “(p)olitical spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.”

The Supreme Court doubled down in 2014, in another 5-4 ruling, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, that an aggregate limit on campaign donations does not prevent “quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption,” and violates the First Amendment.

With the conservative majority entrenched at the Supreme Court, and little interest from Congress, organizations such as Wolf-PAC say voters must go over Congress’s heads.

“It’s got to be an amendment,” Jagger said. “Only a Free and Fair Elections Amendment to our U.S. Constitution will provide the foundation and framework to restore balance, integrity and transparency to our elections and protect our representative democracy for future generations.”

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