Skip to main content

Senate Judiciary Approves Citizens United-Targeted Amendment

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday took aim at the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the money it unleashed into the political system—and TV and cable coffers—but in a way that will almost certainly not bear fruit, or pare any from that money tree.

The committee, following a debate rancorous even when measured against the high bar set in this bitterly divided Congress, passed along pure party lines (10-8) a proposal to adopt a constitutional amendment allowing Congress and the states to essentially restore the limits on direct funding of electoral speech—as in TV ads—by corporations and unions, limits the Supremes ruled an unconstitutional restriction on speech in the Citizens United decision.

Such an amendment would require two thirds votes in the Senate and Republican-controlled House and would also need ratification by three-fourths of the states.

Then why bring it up at all. Some Republicans said it was a political ploy to win votes in the next election, while Sen. Diane Feinstein suggested it was at least important to have the dialog, though at times it was more like a mutual non-admiration society meeting.

So, while the amendment is not going anywhere, it was still a vehicle for Senators to weigh in on trying to: a) Stem the flood of money drowning out the people's voice (Democrats), or b) attempting to gut the First Amendment, favor incumbents, and allow "big media" to influence elections while the voices of others were being stilled (Republicans).

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been one of the strongest critics of the Citizens United decision, said the amendment would "begin to undo the damage done by five activist, conservative, Supreme Court justices who have rewritten and distorted the First Amendment." He said those judges' decision had "unleashed a well- funded coordinated effort to release a tidal wave of special interest and corporate money into elections to drown out the voices of average Americans."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), not one to hide his firebrand under a bushel basket, called the amendment the "single most radical and dangerous proposal introduced in the 113th Congress." He said if it were adopted, it would repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment, a story that "should lead the evening news on every station."

But he had plenty of company. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the Senate had become an increasingly surreal and hysterical place. He said the amendment would "gut the First Amendment," words he said he never thought he would utter. "Fortunately," he said, the Founding Fathers insured that "harebrained ideas like this could never become law."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), another leading voice against Citizens United, said that the other sides "hyperbole and scare tactics" were only a way to protect billionaires trying to "jaundice" the political system. He said those billionaires can drown out the speech of everyone else. He said putting an ad on TV 1,000 times when someone else could only afford to put it on once was not a right enshrined in the First Amendment. Never was and never will be, he said

Republicans countered that the Democrats were only looking to damper the speech of billionaires they didn't like, but Schumer said it would ban billionaires on both sides, and ought to.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the amendment appeared to suppress speech rights for everyone but the media.

Hatch said the resolution would allow the regulation of anything that influences elections, except the press, which he said would be left alone, though also seeming to suggest that was not necessarily a good thing.

"Supporters of this amendment want to manipulate how individual citizens influence elections, or how nonprofit groups influence elections," he said, "but seem perfectly happy to with the way the big media including some of the largest corporations in America influence elections. It is hard to imagine anything that more dramatically affects political equality than to clamp down on ordinary Americans freedom of speech but to give big media a free pass."