JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: The Senate Judiciary Committee met Tuesday to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment which would grant Congress the authority to regulate the campaign financing system.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid said the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which ruled that corporate campaign contributions are a form of free speech, opened up the floodgates for unlimited and untraceable campaign cash.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): The decisions of the Supreme Court have the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires. So we sit here today with a simple choice. We can keep the status quo and argue all day and all night, weekends, forever, about whose billionaires are right and whose billionaires are wrong. Or we can work together to change the system to get this shady money out of our democracy and restore the basic principles of one American, one vote.
DESVARIEUX: In April, the Supreme Court loosened campaign finance regulations even further in its ruling on the FEC v. McCutcheon case. It did away with aggregate limits on contributions to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. The previous limit was $123,000 during a two-year period. As with the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that campaign contributions are a form of free speech. Republican senator from iowa Chuck Grassley agrees.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): Free speech creates a marketplace of ideas in which citizens can learn, debate, and persuade fellow citizens on the issues the day. At its core, it enables the citizenry to be educated, to cast votes, to elect their leaders. Today, freedom of speech is threatened as it has not been in many decades.
DESVARIEUX: With the Supreme Court equating campaign donations as constitutionally protected free speech, some proponents of campaign finance reform see an amendment to the Constitution as the best way to rein in the influence of the super-rich on electoral politics.
But what would the consitutional amendment proposed by Democratic New Mexican senator Tom Udall actually do? It would give Congress and states the ability to regulate campaign financing at their respective levels and have authority over groups like super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, and individuals.
Democratic Illinois senator Dick Durbin cosponsored the legislation.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): In 2012, super PACs spent more than $130 million on federal elections. Sixty percent of all super PAC donations that year came from an elite class of 159 americans. One hundred and fifty-nine Americans accounted for 60 percent of the money from super PACs going into these election campaigns. In North Carolina, that elite group had one member. Seventy-two percent of all outside spending in 2010 came from a millionaire named Art Pope. Can you guess who Governor Patt McCory named as North Carolina’s budget chief writer in 2013? Mr. Pope, who bankrolled the governor’s campaign and supported the Republican super majority that recently enacted the most restrictive voter suppression law in America.
Mr. Chairman, we need to do this to save the political process in America.
DESVARIEUX: America is strongly in favor of more campaign finance regulation, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year. It found that 79 percent of Americans—four out of five—favor imposing limits on the amount raised and spent in campaigns. Half of them support public financing, a term that was never brought up by either Democrats or Republicans as an option.
Paul Jorgenson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American.
PAUL JORGENSON, ASSIST. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, UTPA: What public financing does is it takes away the perverse incentive for Congress or any legislative body or an executive to respond to the interest of donors. So political parties need money, and they’re going to cater to the policy preferences of those who have most of the money.
You could do something like what used to work and no longer does, which is the presidential check-off system on your taxes. So you would check off $3 to go to the presidential general election campaign fund or have a matching fund system in the primaries. And reformers have experimented with different kinds of words to describe these systems, such as voucher or rebate. But more or less it would be funded through general taxes.
DESVARIEUX: Jorgenson adds that the reason Democrats and Republicans have not advocated for public financing is because they both gain from the current system.
JORGENSON: And it’s a system that they know very well and they operate in. And given the high encumbency rate, it’s a game they know how to play. So any new system, any new reform creates a [level of?] unknown that would make politicians rather wary.
DESVARIEUX: Although public financing was not centerstage, another bill before Congress was introduced by Republican Texas senator Ted Cruz. It would eliminate campaign contribution limits altogether for individual donors.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): What this bill will do is, number one, eliminate campaign limits on individual contributions to federal candidates. Right now the current system we have is stupid. You’ve got super PACs spending on the side out of the control of campaigns, and it’s grown because Congress has attempted to regulate in silent speech.
The bill I’ve introduced would eliminate individual contribution limits and provide immediate disclosure within 24 hours.
DESVARIEUX: In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, American University professor Jamie Raskin warned against the further loosening of regulations.
PROF. JAMIE RASKIN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY WASHINGTON COLLEGE OF LAW: The case has nothing to do with increasing free speech of the people and everything to do with increasing the power of the CEOs over the people. If we do nothing now, pretty soon the people will no longer govern the corporations; the corporations will govern the people.
DESVARIEUX: But without a date set for a vote on the constitutional amendment, and the November elections on the horizon, corporations and wealthy individuals will soon have an opportunity to excercise their newly determined free speech guarantees in ways the U.S. electoral system has never seen before.
For FSRN and The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.