The Democrats' Pointless Citizens United Amendment

Pulling a page from the GOP's most ineffective playbook. 

Democrats are often accused of campaigning to repeal the Second Amendment. Now they head into this election year on record as wanting to repeal the First Amendment too.

Alright, that may be an exaggeration. But Senate Democrats are preparing to vote on a constitutional amendment that would reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. FEC decisions.

In each of those rulings, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court—made up entirely of the conservative bloc of justices—affirmed the role of money in free speech and struck down parts of campaign-finance laws. Citizens United paved the way for the wealthy to fund “super PACs” with no legal connection to the campaigns they are supporting; McCutcheon got rid of aggregate campaign giving limits.

New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer says the amendment will ensure “the wealthy can’t drown out middle-class voices in our Democracy.” In progressive circles, Citizens United in particular is seen as the symbol of money corrupting politics. That includes Wall Street, the Koch brothers, the 1 percent, all of these moneyed interests distorting democracy.

The amendment, pushed by New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, is interesting on several levels. It’s usually Republicans who push no-hope constitutional amendments. Usually, when liberals want to change the Constitution, they just try to get a Democratic president to appoint a majority of justices on the Supreme Court.

There have been a slew of conservative constitutional amendments intended to reverse liberal court decisions: requiring balanced federal budgets, banning abortion, permitting school prayer, forbidding forced busing to achieve racial balance, the religious freedom amendment, you name it.

Save one version of the balanced budget amendment, which came within Mark Hatfield’s vote of a two-thirds majority in the Senate back in the 1990s, none of these have come close to clearing a single chamber of Congress, let alone being ratified.

The human life amendment failed to get even a simple majority, much less the required two-thirds, in a Republican-controlled Senate in 1983. It was defeated 49-50, falling eighteen votes short. Ditto the federal marriage amendment, concerning same-sex marriage, on which a cloture motion failed 49-48. Both times there were Republican presidents in office who supported the amendments.

But these amendments do serve a useful purpose for conservative politicians: they create the illusion of doing something about issues that are important to conservatives but are controversial among the rest of their constituents. It is a good substitute for actually legislating on abortion or same-sex marriage—perhaps even stripping courts of their jurisdiction of certain issues, which can be done by majority vote—while making Democrats cast votes against the amendments.

Now liberals have decided to play this game. There is no chance that Udall’s amendment will ever get a two-thirds majority in the Senate or even a simple majority in the Republican-controlled House. Even if Democrats won enough congressional seats to ever advance this amendment, it would have a hard time being ratified by the states.

What the amendment can do is reassure liberals that congressional Democrats are doing something about money in politics, even as they take fistfuls of cash from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, Wall Street, trial lawyers and labor unions, while making Republicans vote with the dastardly Koch brothers.

The Democrats’ big concern about the midterm elections is that their base will not come out and vote in sufficient numbers. That means they could still lose House and Senate seats even if the overall political climate rebounds slightly in their favor.

A vote in which the Democrats tilt at the money in politics windmill, only to watch the Republicans smash democracy on the hard rocks of the coming oligarchy, might nudge some liberal voters to the polls. It’s also a chance to laugh at Mitt Romney for saying corporations are people.

Ironically, as flawed as the current system of campaign finance is, something like Citizens United may be the only way someone more progressive than Hillary Clinton has a chance to compete with her in 2016. It certainly was the only thing that kept Romney’s mostly broke opponents in the race in 2012. Both would seem to be an argument for the democracy-enhancing effects of the ruling.

Politically, campaign finance reform doesn’t appeal to as many people as increasing the minimum wage does. But the Democrats can say the minimum wage would be higher if Republicans weren’t in the pockets of the rich.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jarek Tuszynski (Jarekt)/CC by-sa 3.0