PORTLAND, Maine - The U.S. Senate could vote as soon as tonight on a constitutional amendment that would overturn the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision, governing campaign finance. With that vote looming, Maine's Democratic Senate candidate Shenna Bellows is urging her competitor - Republican incumbent Susan Collins - to support the measure.
The Citizens United decision of 2010 has been criticized for giving corporations too much influence in politics by granting them the same rights as individuals when it comes to funding political campaigns. Bellows says this has caused an influx of so-called "big money" into politics, and this should be of concern to the average person.
"The influence of the wealthiest individuals and largest corporations threatens to drown out free speech rights of ordinary Americans," Bellows said.
Bellows says the origin of much of this big money - that is, the names of the donors behind the Political Action Committees, or PACs - is often unknown. Citing an analysis by the Huffington Post, she says so-called "dark money groups" have spent at least $142 million on ad campaigns for specific political candidates over the past 20 months: more than was spent by groups who do disclose their donors.
Bellows - who has consistently strived to portray herself as the grassroots candidate, funded by small-dollar donations - points out that Sen. Collins has refused a number of opportunities to co-sponsor campaign finance reform efforts. "She voted against stronger disclosure requirements, at the expense of everyday Americans," Bellows said.
Susan Collins' camp, meanwhile, went on the offensive against Bellows, accusing the former head of the Maine ACLU of radically changing her position on campaign finance reform. Lance Dutson is communications director for the Susan Collins re-election campaign. "In November of 2013, Shenna Bellows spoke very strongly against the concept of amending the Constitution to reverse the Citizens United ruling," Dutson says.
Dutson says Bellows shared the concern of groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood that a constitutional amendment could lessen the influence of those groups, meaning less attention for the important social issues they represent. "Her about-face on that issue, and her willingness today now to use a constitutional amendment to potentially restrict free speech, is, literally, an election year flip flop," he says.
Bellow however doesn't agree: She may have opposed other constitutional amendments, but says she has always supported the measure that's about to be voted on, proposed by Sen. Tom Udall, of New Mexico, and formally known as Senate Joint Resolution 19. "I support a narrowly-constructed constitutional amendment that simply regulates campaign contributions and expenditures," she says.
The story took a further twist later in the day when the Collins' campaign issued a statement accusing Bellows of holding a press conference on the wrong bill. Indeed, in answer to one reporter's question, Bellows did read an excerpt from Udall's previous amendment - joint resolution 29. Bellows admits the mistake, saying she grabbed the wrong piece of paper from an aide. But, she says, this was an error of the moment which doesn't alter the substance of her argument.
Sen. Susan Collins, meanwhile, says that, while she's opposed to the Udall amendment, she's also opposed to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. But speaking in an interview with MPBN last week, she urged caution when it comes to addressing the problem. "We should proceed very carefully when it comes to amending the Bill of Rights," Collins said.
Collins says she wants more transparency in reporting requirements, pointing out that she herself has been targeted in advertising campaigns whose financial sources are unknown. She says she opposes the Udall amendment, in part because it threatens to give government too much power in deciding what the free speech rights of corporations are.
"This is going to be another of those what I call 'show votes' in the Senate," she says. "It's not a serious discussion of what the alternatives should be."
"In today's congressional environment, every vote's a show vote," says Brian Duff, a political science professor at the University of New England. He says the Udall amendment will almost certainly fail to get the required two-thirds vote it needs for passage, but it does send a clear message.
"It's going to offer Congress the opportunity to have a lot more to say about how ideas get publicized," Duff says. "It's not an impingement on free speech but it does represent a major adjustment to how loud some things get said."
In a statement released late Monday afternoon, Sen. Collins said that, while she plans to vote against the Udall amendment, she does intend to vote in favor of allowing the bill to proceed to the Senate floor for debate.