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Constitutional amendment required to undo Citizens United, Senate panel told

No Republicans on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee attended the hearing, which heard testimony from lawmakers opposed to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and constitutional scholars.

By Staff writer / July 24, 2012

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Ill., right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol in Washington, earlier this month. Durbin chaired Tuesday's Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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It will take a constitutional amendment to reverse the flood of independent money inundating American elections in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee was told on Tuesday.

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New laws alone will not be enough to counter the impact of the 2010 high court decision establishing that corporations have a First Amendment right to make independent political expenditures during election season, witnesses told the panel.

The hearing of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights arises in a particularly heated election season in which new political spending enabled by Citizens United has played a prominent role. The hearing was chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois and was entirely a production of Democratic members of the Senate.

“I believe, as you believe, that the solution here is a constitutional amendment to restore the power to the hands of the people, not the corporations,” said Senator Max Baucus (D) of Montana, one of the witnesses.

“My proposal would right the wrong of Citizens United – simply overturn it – and give back to the people, like those in Montana, the ability to once again say we are not for sale,” he said.

A campaign to amend the Constitution is already underway with nearly 1.9 million signatures, supportive resolutions from 275 cities and towns, and the backing of state legislatures in California, Maryland, Hawaii, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

Senator Durbin compared the campaign finance issue to other historic national problems that required constitutional amendments to resolve, such as ending slavery, extending the vote to women, and invalidating poll taxes.

“I have reached the conclusion that a constitutional amendment is necessary,” Durbin said. “It is an uphill battle. It may take years.”

The hearing came a week after a campaign spending disclosure law – the DISCLOSE Act – was bottled up in the US Senate by Republican opposition. It also comes amid what is expected to be the most expensive presidential election season in history – including massive spending by so-called super political-action committees.

The Citizens United decision and a related federal appeals court ruling five months later set the stage for the current proliferation of organizations seeking to influence the outcome of national elections while working independently of candidates and their political parties.

By remaining independent they are protected by the First Amendment from federal campaign finance restrictions, under the court decisions.

President Obama and other Democrats have denounced the Citizens United decision as a setback for American democracy by empowering wealthy corporations at the expense of ordinary voters.

Republicans have defended the decision on free speech grounds. Not a single Republican committee member made an appearance at Tuesday’s hearing.

The hearing featured Senator Baucus and three other Democratic lawmakers who have introduced measures designed to undercut or completely overturn Citizens United.

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