April 30
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Today, Senator Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate will vote this year on a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and McCutcheon v. F.E.C.. The idea would be to give back states and the federal government the power to regulate campaign contributions that was taken away by those rulings.

Here’s how Schumer’s press release described what the amendment would do:

  • Restores authority to the American people, through Congress and the states, to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns
  • Allows states to regulate campaign spending at their level;
  • Includes the authority to regulate and limit independent expenditures, like those from Super PACs;
  • Would not dictate any specific policies or regulations, but instead would allow Congress   to pass campaign finance reform legislation that withstands constitutional challenges;
  • Expressly provides that any regulation authorized under the amendment cannot limit the freedom of the press.

Is this mostly a publicity stunt, given the difficulty of passing an amendment to the Constitution? To a degree, sure. But you can’t blame Dems. The current Supreme Court has made its intentions clear, that the influence of the super-rich and corporations over the political process not only isn’t something they find problematic, they’re committed to increasing that influence. The conservatives on the Court are deeply, deeply concerned about the privileges of the wealthy, and they’ll be there to protect them. Any law passed by Congress and signed by the president that limited those privileges would almost certainly get struck down, unless there’s a change in the makeup of the Court. So a constitutional amendment is the only option if you want to reverse the tide of money, much of it difficult or impossible to trace, flowing into campaigns.

The process for any amendment plays out over years, so looking at the current political situation doesn’t necessarily tell you very much about whether it has any chance to succeed. But despite the bipartisan nature of dark money spending (even though conservatives spend more, liberals are doing everything they can to catch up), this has become a partisan issue, with opposition to any restrictions on campaign finance now a core part of conservative ideology, along with things like support for restrictions on reproductive rights and a belief in unfettered access to guns.

That means no legislature controlled by Republicans will, at least in the foreseeable future, pass such an amendment. Right now, Republicans have complete control of legislatures in 27 of the 50 states; for an amendment to succeed, legislatures in three-quarters of the states, or 38, have to pass it. And that’s after it gets a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, which also isn’t going to happen.

But this process always takes a long time, and there’s no telling what the situation might be in, say, ten years. Perhaps there will be some extraordinary scandal that will bring the issue to everyone’s attention and make the country (or at least Republicans) reconsider whether they want to do something about it.

The dominance of money and politics is not at the top of the list of voter concerns, to be sure. But as campaign finance advocates will tell you, the influence of big money seeps into every issue. So it doesn’t hurt to keep debating it, and keep pushing the issue, in the hopes that we can eventually exert more control over what we want our democracy to look like. Because the status quo — with billionaires spending ungodly amounts of money to twist elections to their will — surely can’t be the best we can do.