The U.S. Senate’s top party leaders clashed at an unusual Judiciary Committee hearing over a proposed constitutional amendment that would give Congress more authority to regulate federal campaign spending.
With control of the Senate up for grabs in November, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the proposal is needed to “bring sanity back to political campaigns and restore Americans’ confidence in their elected leaders.”
The chamber’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called the amendment an “embarrassingly bad” proposal that aims to weaken the free-speech protections under the Constitution’s First Amendment.
“It would empower incumbent politicians in Congress and in the states to write the rules -- to write the rules -- on who gets to speak and who doesn’t,” McConnell, who is seeking a sixth term in November, testified at the hearing. “The recourse to being criticized is not to shut up our fellow citizens.”
Today’s hearing marks the first time the Senate’s top two party leaders have testified before the judiciary panel on a policy matter, said committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. In 2001, the chamber’s Democratic and Republican leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Trent Lott of Mississippi, spoke before the panel on a court nominee.
The Democratic proposal, S.J. Res. 19, follows an April 2 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down decades-old limits on the total amount donors can give to federal candidates and parties. The ruling dealt a fresh blow to efforts to curb the role of money in U.S. politics.
The proposed constitutional amendment would give Congress the ability to “regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents” in federal elections. The Judiciary Committee plans to vote on the amendment before the end of the month, according to a Democratic aide to the panel.
Republicans must gain a net six seats in November to take majority control of the Senate.
Reid, who criticizes the influence of the billionaire Koch brothers in almost-daily speeches on the Senate floor, said the Supreme Court ruling necessitates a constitutional change.
“Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances,” Reid said. “We must undo the damage done by the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, and we must do it now.”
The April decision was the high court’s most significant campaign finance decision since its 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited corporate spending. That decision helped fuel an explosion of campaign money, with spending from candidates, parties and outside groups topping $6 billion in 2012.
“Because the Supreme Court based its rulings on a flawed interpretation of the First Amendment, a statutory fix alone will not suffice,” Leahy said. “Only a constitutional amendment can overturn the Supreme Court’s devastating campaign finance decisions.”
Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote by both chambers of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states to become law.
Democratic Senate leaders have said they plan to hold a vote on the measure before the election. Given Republican opposition, prospects are dim that the measure would pass either chamber of Congress. Democrats control 55 of 100 Senate seats and Republicans have a majority in the U.S. House.
McConnell, who faces Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in November, said the proposal amounts to little more than an attempt to rally the Democratic base ahead of the midterm elections.
“This is a political exercise, that’s all it is,” he said.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and leader of the small-government Tea Party wing of the party, accused Democratic supporters of the proposed amendment of abandoning the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
“Ray Bradbury would be astonished because we are seeing ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Democrats today,” Cruz said, referring to Bradbury’s 1953 novel that imagined a future U.S. society in which books were banned. “This amendment is about power and it’s about politicians silencing the citizens.”
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