Amendment Would Allow Congress To Set Political Spending Limits

Many liberal critics of the Supreme Court's campaign finance rulings say a constitutional amendment is needed to limit money's influence in politics. The Senate held a hearing on one proposal.

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Now we're in the midst of an election year, here in the United States. Every seat in the house is up, along with enough seats in the Senate to give Republicans a good chance to take control. Senate Democrats are putting a spotlight on the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision, which cleared the way for more outside political spending. Their latest effort is a proposed constitutional amendment. It's aimed at curbing the influence of money in politics. And yesterday, that plan got an airing at a committee hearing. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Campaign finance hearings don't often draw a crowd, but this one did. Supporters of the proposed amendment wordlessly wheeled in a hand cart, piled high with boxes of petitions. Some opponents sat with blue masking tape over their mouths, to symbolize losing their free speech. The headline act - the Senate majority and minority leaders. Democrat, Harry Reid, went first.

SENATOR HARRY REID: The decision in the Supreme Court has left the American people with a status quo, in which one side's billionaires are pitted against the other side's billionaires.

OVERBY: Republican Mitch McConnell called the amendment an embarrassingly bad idea.

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SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The recourse to being criticized is not to shut up your fellow citizens, which believe me, this is designed to do.

OVERBY: The proposed amendment would give Congress the power to set limits on political spending. The Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional in 1976, saying, essentially, that in politics, money is speech. The amendment is backed by most Democrats in the Senate and by none of the Republicans. But each side had dug up history, meant to show the other's hypocrisy - a 1997 amendment, that most Democrats voted against - a 1987 amendment, proposed by McConnell himself. And both sides questioned the other's real motives. McConnell again.

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MCCONNELL: This is a political exercise, and that's all it is. The goal here is to stir up one party's political base so they'll show up in November.

OVERBY: And Democrat, Charles Schumer.

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SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: We know what's going on here. I guarantee you that Senator McConnell wouldn't have flipped his position, particularly on disclosure, if the vast majority of the money - unregulated money coming into the system - were from Democrats, not Republicans.

OVERBY: Republicans called constitutional lawyer, Floyd Abrams to testify. He opposes regulating political money.

FLOYD ABRAMS: 2012 election, in my view, was a good example of the system working.

OVERBY: He told the panel there could be more disclosure of political funders, but he saw no constitutional way to restrict anyone's political spending.

ABRAMS: If the First Amendment protects flag-burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades, despite the profound offense that such spectacles cause, it surely protects political campaign speech, despite popular opposition.

OVERBY: And both sides foresaw catastrophe looming on the horizon. Republican Jeff Sessions said the Democratic Party has changed from classically liberal to progressive.

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SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: And progressives tend to believe that little things, like tradition, procedures, rules, even sometimes I think, honesty can be subjected to the agenda that they believe is best for America.

OVERBY: Testifying for the Democrats, American University law professor, Jamie Raskin, predicted that pretty soon corporations will be given money directly and secretly to candidates.

JAMIE RASKIN: Then they whine if anybody even calls a corporation out for doing it, saying that somehow their First Amendment rights are being violated. That's a pretty special First Amendment they've got.

OVERBY: Reid says there will be a floor vote later this year. But amending the Constitution takes a two-thirds majority in each house and three quarters of the state legislatures - a long hard slog from the hearing room. Peter Overby - NPR News, Washington.

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