The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ted Cruz loves ‘Saturday Night Live’. And hates attempts to overturn Citizens United.

Source: C-SPAN
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This week, the Senate is devoting much of its time to debating a constitutional amendment that would reverse the 2010 Citizens United decision. It has somewhat bipartisan support but is unlikely to ever become law. The debates that occur this week then are mostly theoretical and made for grandstanding. Which is the one kind of debate where Congress -- and the Senate in particular excels. No speech, though, was as visually appealing as that of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who -- wait for it -- opposes the amendment. Cruz's speech included a dazzling array of charts that would make no sense out-of-context -- and, Cruz's opponents would argue -- even in-context.

Cruz called the amendment the "most radical proposal that has been considered by the United States Senate in the time that I have served," (he's been in office since early 2013), and added that it would decimate the 1st Amendment's protection of free speech by making all political speech from corporations -- not just monetary contributions -- illegal. As Cruz interprets the amendment, it could allow Congress to ban Hillary Clinton's new memoir "Hard Choices."

He said that prohibiting corporations from engaging in politics could prevent the New York Times from criticizing members of Congress, and the NAACP from taking part in political advocacy. He also argued that reversing Citizens United could give Congress the authority to make Saturday Night Live's political commentary illegal. He was very passionate about this part of his speech -- which of course was the part of the speech that was the most eye-catching, and has inspired the most blog posts. It included a bit of impersonation inception as Cruz said, "Not gonna do it," in the style of Dana Carvey-impersonating -George H.W. Bush. (Wheels within wheels!)

"Lorne Michaels [SNL's creator] could be put in jail under this amendment for making fun of any politician," Cruz said. "That is extraordinary. It is breathtaking and it is dangerous." Cruz is arguing that since NBC is a corporation, the amendment would give Congress the authority to ban any political speech doled out by its employees.

Next, he established his undying affection for the comedy program, which is approaching its 40th anniversary, to further bolster his argument. "I grew up watching Saturday Night Live. I love Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live over the years has had some of the most tremendous political satire. Who can forget in 2008, Saturday Night Live’s wickedly funny characterization of the Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin?" (Now we know the inspiration for Cruz's cache of political impersonations.)

Less memorable were the times that SNL impersonated Cruz. They made fun of him the last time he made a long, pop culture-riffing speech during the government shutdown last year.

Al Franken, the Senate's own personal Saturday Night Live expert, was also invoked in Cruz's floor speech. Cruz consulted him on the possibility of the amendment outlawing corporate-sponsored satire. "The good senator promptly assured me he had no intention of doing any such thing,” Cruz said, before returning to his argument that the current legislation would give him no choice in the matter. Franken did not have a chance to rebut Cruz, but he did have the honor of having his impersonations aired on C-SPAN more than a decade before Cruz had the chance.

By the end of his speech, Cruz was calling the campaign finance amendment "an amendment to repeal the 1st Amendment." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a similar read on the amendment. He wrote an op-ed for Politico magazine that said Senate Democrats are  "interested in repealing the free-speech protections the 1st Amendment guarantees to all Americans." And because Cruz is nothing if not a master of red meat rhetoric Republicans will love, he also mentioned the Koch brothers, Obamacare, the Islamic State and even quoted Ray Bradbury. (Cruz called the 49 Senate Democrats who co-sponsored the amendment the "Fahrenheit 451 Democrats.")

Many campaign-finance experts employed at pro-campaign-finance reform organizations obviously disagree with Cruz. "Nothing in the language of the amendment would permit such actions," writes John Bonifaz, president for Free Speech for the People, in an email. "Criminalizing a TV show would, of course, still violate the First Amendment."

This post has been updated.