The Senate advanced a bill Monday that would amend the Constitution to allow Congress and states to impose limits on campaign fundraising and spending.
Both of Oregon’s senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, voted in favor of invoking cloture, which forces a vote on the motion to proceed after 30 hours of floor debate. The 79-18 vote, with 25 Republicans and 54 Democrats voting yes, paves the way for another procedural vote on the amendment later this week.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced the proposed amendment June 18. Along with 13 other Democratic senators, Wyden signed on as a co-sponsor that same day. Nine days later, Merkley followed suit.
Merkley told The Bulletin on Monday his support of the amendment is grounded in the first three words of the Constitution: We the people. “We have a system of campaign finance that isn’t of, by, and for the people; it’s of, by and for the powerful,” Merkley said, echoing Abraham Lincoln’s famous description of the American government in the Gettysburg Address. “This is very corrupting on the fundamental sense of what our democracy is.”
Merkley pointed to recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly the Citizens United case, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts during elections, in many cases without disclosing where the money came from, and the McCutcheon decision, which removed the limit on the total amount an individual can contribute to campaigns.
With those decisions, the Supreme Court has opened the doors to a system of government that is “bought and paid for by the richest and most powerful who adopt and pursue policies for the rich and powerful,” Merkley said. “Ordinary citizens feel, quite rightly so, that their voice is being drowned out by a few people wielding the might of many millions, or hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars.”
The amendment reaffirms that it is the role of Congress and the states to set reasonable limits on campaign financing and spending to promote democratic self-government and political equity, he said.
One example of money’s corrosive influence on politics can be found in the GOP’s position on carbon emissions, Merkley said. Previously, Republicans relied on a free-market solution to reduce sulfur dioxide, which can produce acid rain. This method was cheaper and more effective than most had anticipated, and was a major policy victory for Republicans, he said.
But when the time came to apply this strategy to curb carbon emissions, a few wealthy individuals, including the billionaire Koch brothers, whose fortune derives in large part from processing fossil fuels, spent massive amounts of money and reversed the entire party’s position on the issue, he said.
In a prepared statement, Wyden said the campaign finance system needs a drastic overhaul.
“(The Constitutional amendment) would restore common sense rules for state and federal elections,” he said. “As I’ve said many times, it is Congress’ responsibility to begin restoring balance to the mechanisms of democracy before our elections are entirely overrun by moneyed corporate interests that are using our political system and voters as pawns.”
With an eye towards the November midterms, Democrats and Republicans have seized upon the proposed amendment to attack each other. In dueling op-eds published by the news outlet Politico on Sunday, Democrats and Republicans accused the other party of stifling free speech, either through massive spending or by imposing spending limits.
“Their goal is to shut down the voices of their critics at a moment when they fear the loss of their fragile Senate majority,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote of Senate Democrats. “And to achieve it, they’re willing to devote roughly half of the remaining legislative days before November to this quixotic anti-speech gambit.”
In their own op-ed, Democrat Tom Udall and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who caucuses with the Democrats) said that no single issue is more important to the needs of average Americans.
“If we cannot control billionaires’ power to buy elections, the people elected to office will be responsive to the needs of the rich and powerful, rather than the needs of everyone else,” they wrote. “Americans’ right to free speech should not be proportionate to their bank accounts. This is why we have introduced a constitutional amendment to reform our broken campaign finance system.”
Constitutional amendments are notoriously difficult to pass and enact. In addition to passing both chambers of Congress by a two-thirds majority — highly unlikely in today’s divided Congress — it would have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states to go into effect.
After the first 10 amendments included in the Bill of Rights, states have ratified amendments to the Constitution only 17 times since 1791. The most recent amendment, which allows Congress to only enact pay raises for its members that will go into effect after the next election, was ratified in 1992.
Spending outside of candidates and political parties has skyrocketed since the Citizens United ruling in 2010. At this point in the 2010 midterms, outside spending in elections totaled less than $58 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In this election cycle, outside spending has topped $189 million, an increase of more than 300 percent.
In July 2013, the Oregon Legislature passed a resolution urging Congress to amend the Constitution to clarify that Congress and states should regulate the involvement of money in elections. It joined 15 other states that have also passed similar resolutions.