WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court may treat corporations like people who can spend whatever they want on elections, but the American people don't have to accept it, said Democratic senators who proposed a constitutional amendment Tuesday to retake control of campaign spending.
The amendment, introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), doesn't directly address the justices' legal finding that corporations have a right to free speech that was curtailed by election law. Instead, it would add to the Constitution language that says Congress and the states can regulate campaign contributions and expenditures.
The amendment would effectively reverse two landmark Supreme Court decisions -- the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which said spending money in elections is a form of speech, and the 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled it unconstitutional to regulate the money spent to influence elections by corporations and unions.
The Citizens United ruling has unleashed a flood of cash from corporations and super PACs, which can spend as much as they want and do so nearly in secret.
"Letting this go unchecked is a threat to our democracy. Campaigns should be about the best ideas, not the biggest checkbooks," Udall said at the press conference.
The amendment has three main focuses: to authorize Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaign contributions and expenditures (including independent expenditures), to allow states to regulate that raising and spending at their level, and to permit Congress to pass campaign finance reform legislation that could withstand constitutional challenges. It does not specify what the reforms should be.
Also at the press conference, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the proposed amendment, called the Buckley case "one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court has rendered in the last hundred years" and described the Citizens United ruling as "Buckley on steroids."
A constitutional amendment could be a welcome proposal for the thousands of demonstrators involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which holds a reversal of the Citizens United ruling as one of its oft-repeated demands.
"The extent to which money and corporations have taken over the [campaign] process is reflected across our cities in the Occupy movement," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), another co-sponsor. "It is something we have to do something about if we are going to reclaim American democracy as the shining light to other countries that it has always been."
The amendment faces a long, unlikely path even to win initial congressional approval. Senate Republicans last year opposed a Schumer measure, the Disclose Act, that would have just required more disclosure about campaign spenders.