Ted Cruz and fellow Republicans hope a Democratic bid to change the US Constitution – in the name of regulating money in politics – will not only fail, but also backfire politically.
This week, Democrats in the Senate are trying to pass a constitutional amendment to combat the influence of money in politics. Huge spending by people like the conservative billionaire Koch brothers is corroding America’s political system, they say. And with US Supreme Court rulings calling such money a protected form of free speech, a constitutional amendment that modifies free-speech protections is seen as the only solution.
“There's one way to change this, one way for real reform, and that is a constitutional amendment,” Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico said Tuesday in floor debate prior to a vote on the issue this week.
But the move shows why campaign finance reform is so hard. For one, amending the Constitution is harrowingly difficult, and the current effort by Senate Democrats is virtually guaranteed to fail.
Moreover, it opens the door for Republicans to criticize them as ready to eviscerate the Bill of Rights. For conservatives who accuse Democrats of trying to rewrite the Constitution to enable their liberal agenda, this is the reddest of political red meat.
Indeed, Senator Cruz took such arguments Tuesday and played them for all they were worth. Citing the proposed wording, the Texan argued the amendment would not only allow Congress to regulate spending on campaign-related advertisements, but also on other forms of political speech – including political movies and books, and even “Saturday Night Live” skits.
Cruz pointed to a poster board with photos of SNL performers masquerading as political figures such as Al Gore and Sarah Palin. He proclaimed his undying love for the show’s political satire. Who could forget, he asked, Dana Carvey’s sendup of George H.W. Bush?
“Not gonna do it!” Cruz intoned, breaking into a brief but persuasive echo of the nasal tone that Mr. Carvey used when impersonating the 41st president.
Is this just hypothetical hyperbole – the notion that Congress might restrain the airing of political skits?
The two sides in this debate differ sharply on that question.
Cruz noted that the Citizens United court case – which helped to spawn the Democrats’ amendment push – involved whether a corporation could air a documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she sought the 2008 presidential nomination. The Supreme Court ruling in this case overturned a ban on corporations using their general-fund money for political communications.
NBC, which produces “Saturday Night Live,” is also a corporation, and Cruz said the amendment would give Congress the power to put limits on the political speech of corporations, as well as individuals like the Koch brothers.
The proposed amendment, citing the “fundamental principle of political equality for all,” would allow legislative caps on “the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of” political candidates. It would allow Congress to set such caps for federal elections, and states to set them for state elections.
Senator Udall, a key backer of the proposal, said the Supreme Court has “opened the floodgates” for unlimited spending by corporations and wealthy individuals and that most Americans view the influence of moneyed interests as a threat to democracy.
Democrats are casting current Republicans in Congress as beholden to those power brokers – symbolized by the industrialist Koch brothers. Udall noted pointedly that he has an ally in one prominent Republican who no longer has to worry about election fundraising: Alan Simpson, the former senator and GOP whip from Wyoming.
“The other side can talk about imaginary horribles,” Udall said. But “we can't hand our democracy over to the biggest spender.”
Cruz conceded that Democrats avow no intention of muzzling “Saturday Night Live” or other voices (he also mentioned the Sierra Club and NAACP as corporations). But, he argued, the question isn’t the motives of the current Congress, but how the move would erode First Amendment protections for the future.
He pointed to some allies of his own on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, has warned against using the “nuclear option” of tampering with free speech in efforts to improve the political system.
Cruz also said that today’s 49 Democratic senators who have signaled support for the amendment are breaking with the view of Edward Kennedy, their former colleague who said, “We have never amended the Bill of Rights, and now is no time to start."
Mr. Kennedy said that in 1997, though, without knowledge of how future Supreme Court rulings would affect the landscape of campaign finance legislation. Today, many on the left argue that the protections in the Bill of Rights have always been limited – balanced in practice against competing constitutional concerns – and that free speech would remain an ascendant value if the amendment passes.
Although the measure isn’t expected to pass the Senate, the question of whether to amend the Constitution to enable campaign reform won’t go away. Some 3 million Americans have signed a petition in favor of the idea, liberal groups said this week.
But amending the Constitution is no small feat. Even if the measure were to pass the Senate with the needed two-thirds majority, it would also need to pass the House (currently controlled by Republicans) by the same margin and then be ratified by 38 of the 50 states.