MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There is a movement on to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling with a constitutional amendment. One vocal proponent of that movement is Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. He's finishing up his first term and facing a tight race for re-election. Tester says Citizens United allows corporations to secretly buy American political elections. And he takes issue with one fundamental part of the Court's decision - the idea of corporate personhood. That corporations, like people, have a right to political speech.
SENATOR JON TESTER: Well, I think corporations are a whole lot different than people. I mean, I don't know a corporation would be put in prison. I do know people would be put in prison. And that's really what's sad about it. As a policymaker, as a public servant, I come to Washington, D.C. and I make difficult decisions and I make difficult decisions every day. And sometimes those decisions upset people.
Well, if you've got corporations out there that have got hugely deep pockets - and I'm concerned about re-election, which isn't the top thing on my mind. The top thing on my mind is to make good policy. Well, they're going to come in, in a state like Montana, throw $1 million down the year before an election and probably put 15 to $20 million in during the election, which is what we figure they're going to do this cycle.
And whether it beats me or not, I don't know. I have great faith in the people of Montana, they can't be bought. But if it is, what a travesty. That's ridiculous. And it's not with the forefathers sought. And it just really goes against what this country is built upon.
BLOCK: Conceivably, though, some that corporate money could benefit you or certainly labor union money on behalf of political ads, which has traditionally favored Democratic candidates, that could also benefit you.
TESTER: Well, in the end, I don't think it benefits anybody. I mean, I think in the end, this decision hurts Democrats and hurts Republicans. Regardless if I have my third party people or what happens, I think in the end when you have no transparency, when there's no accountability, it's not good for government.
BLOCK: Senator Tester, I want to ask you about some of the constitutional amendments the Democrats have introduced into Congress that would reverse the Citizens United decision. You signed on as a co-sponsor. To say that this is an uphill struggle would be an understatement. I mean, the pass to get a constitutional amendment ratified means you have to pass it with a supermajority in both Houses of Congress. It then has to be ratified by three quarters of the states.
Is this really, do you think, a symbolic move more than anything that has a practical chance of getting passed?
TESTER: Well, I think you have to fight for what you believe in. And I don't see this as symbolic. I think it can happen. Whether - it's certainly not going to happen before this election is over with in 2012. But I think this is a direct attack on our election system. And I think people will see it as that, and they'll move forward in a way that, you know, keeps his country a great country and keeps our elections free.
BLOCK: I gather that the race, your re-election race, for your seat in the Senate is looking really pretty close. How much of an effect do you think corporate spending is having on that campaign?
TESTER: Well, as I've said, the authority put $1 million in all on attack ads on me. And I think that's just the beginning. Our challenge is, is to make sure we get the facts. If we get the facts out, we win the election. If fiction trumps fact - and that's exactly what these third-party folks are trying to do, is make fiction from fact - then it becomes a real problem.
BLOCK: You know, Senator Tester, that your opponent's campaign says that you're hypocritical for talking about restricting campaign finance. They call you the number one recipient of lobbyist campaign cash out of any Washington politician this election cycle. How do you respond to that?
TESTER: Well, first of all, I've put up incredible standards in my office for lobbyists; went far, far, far above the Senate standards, number one. Number two, the fact that you know that people give money to my campaign shows that there's transparency there. But the fact is you know about it.
The problem with these third party folks is that you don't know who they are, where they come from. And yet, they're going to put as much money into this campaign potentially as either one of the candidates put together.
BLOCK: Conceivably, there would be a third-party group, a superPAC that would say, you know, we're going to back Senator Jon Tester. If that's the case, what do you do? Do you say, no, I don't want that? Do you...
TESTER: First of all, I wouldn't know who to go to, number one. And number two...
BLOCK: Because you're not supposed to go to them, right?
TESTER: Number two, if there was listening to this program, I would just a deal with the facts. Deal with facts. Don't make stuff up.
BLOCK: Senator Tester, thank you very much.
TESTER: Thank you.
BLOCK: That Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, talking about why he's backing a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.
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