The Senate began debate Tuesday on a Democrat-proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the government to regulate campaign money again, a response to recent Supreme Court rulings that removed limits on certain election contributions.
Democrats argue that the Supreme Court’s decisions in two cases allowed billionaires – most notably conservatives Charles and David Koch – to influence politics at rates disproportionate to the rest of the populace.
Republicans fought back Tuesday, saying the amendment would inhibit citizens’ First Amendment rights.
Divided along partisan lines, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spearheaded their parties’ opposing views as the Senate Judiciary Committee debated the proposed amendment.
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“The flood of dark money into our nation’s political system poses the greatest threat to our democracy that I have witnessed during my tenure in public service,” Reid said. “The decisions by the Supreme Court have left the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires.”
Reid said the Supreme Court decisions in the two cases – Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. FEC – had “eviscerated our campaign laws.”
McConnell called the proposed amendment dangerous and argued it would enable politicians to constrain constituent voices.
“The recourse to being criticized is not to shut up our fellow citizens,” McConnell said. “The First Amendment is about empowering the people, not the government. The proposed amendment has it exactly backwards.”
The Democrats have little chance of ratifying this measure. It would require a two-thirds vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate, an impossibility in a divided Congress. Even if it got past Congress, 38 states then would have to ratify it.
The last amendment ratified was the 27th, which prohibits Congress from raising its pay during its current session. First proposed in 1789, it was ratified in 1992.
“This is a political exercise,” McConnell said. “When it comes to free speech, we shouldn’t substitute the incumbent-protection desires of politicians for the protection the Constitution guarantees to all Americans.”
Reid, who announced support for the amendment last month, spoke about his personal experience with changes in campaign finance law since 1978, when each campaign donor had to list the amount, his or her occupation and address, among other personal details, which Reid said kept the system transparent.
He said that was lost after the 2010 Citizens United decision.
“No one knew where the money came from, and the people in Nevada were subjected to false and misleading ads, not knowing anything about these shadow groups,” Reid said, referring to so-called super political action committees.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used the hearing to unveil two other proposals.
One would further ease caps on campaign spending, and the other would limit the political-speech rights of media corporations to the same as those granted to individuals. Cruz, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, spoke passionately in opposition to the proposed amendment.
“This amendment, if adopted, would repeal the First Amendment protections,” Cruz said. “When did elected Democrats abandon the Bill of Rights?”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., questioned whether the Texas senator had an “absolutist” interpretation of the First Amendment that also would rule out such current laws as those aimed at controlling child pornography.
“We have always had balancing tests for every amendment,” Schumer said. “They are not absolute. To say that you cannot have some regulation when billions of dollars cascade into the system, and that’s unconstitutional, it’s false.”
Reid has said he'll schedule a full Senate floor vote if the Senate Judiciary Committee approves the legislation. The committee hasn’t scheduled that vote.
“Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances,” Reid said. “How could everyday working American families afford to make their voices heard, if money equals free speech?”
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