He surely did not intend it, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made a stunningly compelling case for a constitutional amendment allowing Congress and the states to restore sensible limits on the influence of money in politics. We appreciate his help and his clarity.
The good news is that the Senate will vote on just such a proposal next month, the Democracy for All Amendment (S.J. Res 19). Senators still undecided about the amendment should study Sen. McConnell’s remarks carefully.
Speaking to a roomful of ultra-rich political investors in June (audio here), McConnell voiced his delight at their collective success in unharnessing political money. “The worst day of my political life” was when then-President George W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold law with its limits on independent political spending, he declared. He paid particular tribute to industrialists Charles and David Koch, the country’s most prolific political spenders: “I don’t know where we’d be without you,” he told them.
McConnell calls the Democracy for All Amendment radical; it is anything but. The amendment simply restores an understanding of the Constitution that was in place for at least a century until the Supreme Court began unraveling it in the 1970s. It affirms that money is not speech and that no one, however wealthy or powerful, has a constitutional right to spend unlimited sums to influence our elections.
A poll conducted for CBS News in May found that 71 percent of Americans support reasonable limits on political spending. A survey taken this month in battleground states for this November’s elections—including McConnell’s home state of Kentucky—found 73 percent support a constitutional amendment.
The senator argues that proposals to limit political spending are aimed at silencing critics of government. Singling out Common Cause, he charges that those who favor a system that pays for campaigns with a mix of public funds and small-dollar donations from individuals are really trying to elevate Democrats and defeat Republicans.
Neither claim stands up to scrutiny. The Democracy for All Amendment and the spending limits it would permit would protect the First Amendment; every citizen’s right to express his or her views, however unpopular or unconventional, would remain fully intact. Corporations also would continue to speak; the amendment simply would permit sensible controls on how much they and individuals can spend to influence elections.
As for public financing, Republicans routinely run and win using public funds in states where voluntary public financing systems are in place. In my home state of Connecticut, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley has opted to run on public financing this year; Arizona Governor Jan Brewer used her state’s public financing system in her victorious 2010 campaign. The “clean elections” or “fair elections” systems in these states encourage candidates of all parties to focus on issues important to the general public rather than the parochial concerns of a handful of funders.
The real radicals are those who argue that their free speech rights include the right to use their wealth—corporate or individual—to drown out the voices of other Americans. They view the Citizens United decision, which invited corporations to spend freely on our elections, as—in Sen. McConnell’s words— having “leveled the playing field for corporations.”
The American people know better.