Legislation to curb electoral power of the wealthy few

A constitutional amendment that could transform American politics and already is backed by millions of Americans of all political stripes has a chance for a breakthrough moment in Washington on Tuesday.

In what figures to be a packed committee room, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and supporting witnesses will make the case for a constitutional amendment that would break the power of big money and the all-too-often anonymous donors behind it in our elections. The amendment would give Congress and state legislatures authority to put reasonable limits on political spending, a power they enjoyed for more than 200 years until a string of Supreme Court decisions upended our campaign finance laws and turned the First Amendment inside out.

ADVERTISEMENT
While opponents already are decrying it as an assault on free speech, the Udall amendment wouldn’t stop anyone from saying or publishing anything. Instead, it would enable citizens and their elected representatives to restore common-sense limits on political spending by the wealthy and powerful few, spending that currently is drowning out the voices of the rest of us. 

The amendment recognizes that our laws should protect the right of every American – not just the wealthy -- to compete fairly in the marketplace of ideas, and it would protect every American’s right to advance his or her political views, however unpopular or critical of government, without fear of official reprisals.

The amendment embodies the wisdom of two eloquent dissenters from recent high court rulings undercutting our campaign finance system. The first section, affirming “the fundamental principle of political equality for all,” is in line with Justice Stephen Breyer’s observation in McCutcheon v. FEC, that “where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

And underlying the entire amendment is a proposition advanced in another Senate hearing last month by retired Justice John Paul Stevens, the lead dissenter in Citizens United v. FEC. “While money is used to finance speech, money is not speech,” he correctly declared.

The drive for Udall’s proposal took off in 2010, when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United allowed corporations to begin spending unlimited amounts of money on politics. The decision is hugely unpopular – about three-fourths of Americans support spending limits, a recent CBS poll revealed – but the drive to overturn it has one almost unnoticed by most of the media and until recently in Congress.

That effort has gained steam as the high court and lower federal courts following its lead have dismantled more common sense campaign finance laws and millionaire political investors have pumped billions of dollars into state and federal campaigns. 

The Udall amendment now has been endorsed in substance by voters or their elected representatives in 16 states with a total population of 98 million. That it has taken so long to get serious attention is a testament to how addicted to big money official Washington has become and the scope of the challenge facing those trying to beat that addiction.

Rapoport is president of Common Cause.