California’s lengthy ballot includes a proposition that would instruct members of the state’s congressional delegation to do something that many of them are already trying to do: change how money is involved in politics.
But that hasn’t stopped supporters of Proposition 59, who are aiming for a national referendum on money in politics that they say starts with the most populous state in the country sending a strong signal to Congress.
It’s all part of an uphill battle to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said money spent to influence voters that isn’t funneled through a candidate’s campaign is free speech, and the federal government cannot prohibit corporations and labor unions from spending money that way.
Proposition 59 simply instructs members of the state’s congressional delegation to work to overturn the decision — it’s not legally binding and there’s no punishment if California officials don’t do it.
Nevertheless, the idea isn’t a stretch for at least two-thirds of the state’s delegation. They are already on board with a constitutional amendment, or at least support other legislation to overhaul how money can be collected, spent and publicly disclosed in campaigns.
Thirty-two Democrats in California’s 53-member House delegation are co-sponsors of at least one of the nine House resolutions pending in Congress aimed at overturning the decision through a constitutional amendment.
California’s senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have co-sponsored a resolution to create a constitutional amendment, which is awaiting consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles), who supports campaign finance legislation but is not co-sponsoring one of the resolutions, said he thinks the Supreme Court made the wrong decision and he’ll pursue an amendment if voters say to.
“I don’t think that corporations are people, so if the voters of California are consistent with that, then they are consistent with me,” he said. “I’d love to see it pass.”
Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, elections have become dramatically more expensive, with hundreds of millions being spent to influence elections at all levels by groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. Outside groups had spent almost $170 million on elections by this time in 2008, according to the nonpartisan campaign finance tracking website Open Secrets. And at this point in 2012, they’d spent $430 million. So far in 2016, they’ve spent nearly $800 million.
Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Stockton) said that while Proposition 59 may give voters a voice and he expects it to pass, change won’t happen until Democrats and Republicans agree on what to do about the campaign finance system in general.
“It’d be nice, it shows the people care and that's all, but it’s not going to get anything done,” he said.
Last spring, McNerney and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) created the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Caucus to find fixes they can agree on, such as getting voters more accurate information about who gives money to politicians and making that information available faster.
Even before Californians start voting, Proposition 59’s supporters are paying close attention to who in Congress is with them and who isn’t: They plan to meet with candidates and officeholders before the election and coax all members to sign a pledge promising to follow the voter instruction if the proposition passes. So far, few have signed.
“If they are not going to sign the pledge they should give us a pretty good reason,” said Michele Sutter, chairwoman of the group Overturn Citizens United, Yes on 59.
Senate candidate Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange) isn’t co-sponsoring a pending House resolution. But campaign spokespersons for Sanchez and opponent Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris told The Times they support the proposition and would follow the instruction.
There are 21 California House members who don’t already support a constitutional amendment. Most of them are Republicans. Asked about the issue, several said they hadn’t thought about Proposition 59 or whether they’d follow a “Yes” vote on it in November. Some hadn’t even heard of it.
“I’ve been focused on other things,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa).
“I haven’t read it yet,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said. “I’ll take a look at it.”
A few have definitely made up their minds.
“No,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) said when asked if he’d follow the voter instruction. "It is a political push by those in California that don’t like the Citizens United outcome. It’s the Democrats pushing it and the court already ruled that it was a legal method for campaign finance and political expression that everyone has a right to do.”
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Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics