On Thursday, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 to endorse an amendment that would undo the damage done to democracy by a series of high court decisions—and to restore reasonable limits on financial contributions and expenditures intended to influence elections.
Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, a former prosecutor and the senior member of the Senate, framed the vote with a declaration that, “I have served in the Senate for nearly 40 years and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for nearly ten. I have always believed that amending our Constitution must be subject to the highest measure of scrutiny. It is something that should only be done as a last resort. But when the voices of hardworking Americans continue to be drowned out by the moneyed few, and when legislative efforts to right this wrong are repeatedly filibustered by Republicans, more serious action must be taken.”
Leahy’s position was echoed by committee Democrats who joined him in backing an amendment that declares:
SECTION 1: To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
SECTION 2: Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
SECTION 3: Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
That’s more cautious language than many activists would like to see. And it may be that, as the amendment movement grows in strength, and as the congressional debate evolves, a final amendment will feature more specific language regarding all the issues that arise when the courts and Congress extend special rights to corporations.
But no one should doubt the significance of the fact that, in four short years, a grassroots movement has changed the calculus of the money-in-politics debate. With little money and almost no major media coverage, the movement started by groups such as Move to Amend and Free Speech for People, and advanced by People for the American Way, Common Cause and Public Citizen has staked out bold positions and made overly-cautious Democratic officials and even a few Republicans move toward them.