WASHINGTON – The Senate is exploring changes to the First Amendment that would limit the flood of secret money in the campaign finance system.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday to examine a possible constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress to regulate campaign finance laws that the Supreme Court undid in the Citizens United case in 2009.
“It’s clearer than ever that we need a constitutional amendment to restore integrity in our election system,” Sen. Tom Udall,D-N.M.,the amendment’s sponsor,said in a statement. “Our government should be of,by and for the people,not bought and paid for by secret donors and special interests.”
In 2012,Super PACs donated $240 million to eight presidential candidates.
Udall’s amendment,called S.J. Res. 19,would give Congress the power to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns. It would allow states to control campaign spending in local elections. The language does not dictate any specific policies or regulations.
“Dark money has the greatest debt to our economy,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,D-Nev.,testified. “We can sit here,keep the status quo,or we can work together to change the system and get shady money out of our economy.”
Reid,who favors the amendment,said things have gotten worse since the first elections held after the court decision.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell,R-Ky.,testified against the proposal,saying it “has it exactly backwards.”
“It says that Congress and the states can pass whatever law they want abridging political speech – the speech that is at the very core of the First Amendment,” he said.
“The Constitution is a sacred document that has guided this country well for centuries.” Sen. Richard J. Durban,D-Ill.,said in support of the amendment. “I think this change is a great exception.”
In a statement handed out at the hearing,the Center for Competitive Politics opposed making any changes. It said the proposed amendment would grant “unlimited and frightening” powers to Congress. The group supported the Citizens United case and opposed the McCain-Feingold act that had regulated campaign finance laws.
“Once again,we see that politicians’ fidelity to the First Amendment appears to come second to getting re-elected,” the statement says.
The group says the amendment would regulate freedom of speech for everyday working Americans.
“I am in favor of the constitutional amendment,” Medea Benjamin,co-founder of Codepink,said in an interview after the hearing. “But we would like an even stronger amendment that makes it clear that corporations are not people.”
She and other members of the activist group held up signs in the hearing supporting the amendment before they were escorted out.
North Carolina State Sen. Floyd B. McKissick Jr. said Citizens United brought influence of wealthy donors to the heart of state government,which cut both corporate taxes and unemployment benefits,changes that wealthy donors favored.
“Let me be clear: I personally oppose all of these changes. But I know in politics,sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,” McKissick said. “The question is who has the deepest pockets and who can buy the most ads to smear and discredit anyone who stands in their way.”
For that reason,he said,passing the amendment would “restore our democracy.”
Sen. Jeff Flake,R-Ariz.,said the proposal is about silencing citizens.
“If this amendment is adopted,it will repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment,” Flake said. “Nothing in this amendment is limited to corporations or billionaires,and it would give Congress the absolute authority to regulate the political speech of every single American.”
The committee will hold another hearing,but a date has not been set.
Reach reporter Sekia Mangum at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.