September 08, 2014

Udall Speaks on Senate Floor about Need to Rein in the Influence of Big Money on Elections

Constitutional amendment would make it clear that Congress and the states have the authority to regulate campaign finance

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, an outspoken critic of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, spoke on the U.S. Senate floor in advance of a historic vote on his constitutional amendment, S.J.Res 19. Udall introduced his constitutional amendment last June to make it clear in the Constitution that Congress and the states have the authority to regulate campaign finance. A final vote is expected later this week. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

In two months, Americans will go the polls and vote. That's our heritage, and it is something to celebrate and to protect. The integrity of our elections is crucial, but our campaign finance system is under siege, drowning in cash and in record amounts of money. Much of it is from outside groups, and much of it is hidden. Our elections should not be for sale to the highest bidder.

Money has poisoned our political system. The American people have lost faith in us as they watch this merry go round, this constant money chasing from special interests, and see very little else getting done. Folks want Congress to get to work, and to work together to find real solutions to real problems. They want us to spend our time raising hopes instead of raising cash. That is why Senator Bennet and I have introduced our constitutional amendment, and that is what I want to talk about today.

Total spending on federal elections was over $6 billion dollars in 2012, double what was spent in 2000. That's a lot of money. Where does it come from? Most of it comes from a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, from billionaires and special interests writing checks and often in dark corners.

There are two basic questions. How did we get into this mess? And how do we fix it?

First, we have to look at the history, which is important to understand because folks can change the subject, but they cannot change the facts. And the facts are very clear. Our campaign finance system is being destroyed by misguided Supreme Court decisions - one after the other, narrow 5 to 4 decisions, giving a hammer to big money, chipping away at our democracy.

We can go all the way back to 1976 with Buckley versus Valeo, where the Court said money and free speech are the same thing. Then four years ago with Citizens United, the Court said that corporations are "persons," and can spend all they want. Basically, the Supreme Court put a "for sale" sign on elections. These decisions opened the door, allowing a flood of money, ignoring political reality and drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans. And most recently in the McCutcheon decision, the Court knocked down aggregate contribution limits. One person can dole out $3.6 million dollars now, directly to candidates and parties in all 50 states. Let's put that in perspective: for an average American working full-time, making minimum wage, he or she would have to work 239 years to make that much money.

Justice Ginsberg said in a recent interview in the National Law Journal: "I think the biggest mistake this court made is in campaign finance...It should be increasingly clear how (money) is corrupting our system."Justice Ginsberg is right. It is clear to most Americans, which is why opponents of reform either change the subject, or muddy the water, which I will get to in a minute.

But, the point must be made that the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court are not done. If left unchecked, the hammering will continue and the destruction will go on. Chief Justice Roberts made a troubling statement in the McCutcheon decision when he said that preventing bribery is the only basis - the only justification - for Congress to pass campaign finance laws.

What does this mean? It means more bad decisions from the Court. It means the floodgates stay open and the money keeps pouring in. Short of prohibiting out and out bribery, Congress is powerless, and the American people must step aside while billionaires stay at the front of the line. This defies common sense.

Senator John McCain said after McCutcheon that, "There will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again." I'm afraid my friend is right. There will be scandals, and I would argue that there already are. Just look at the millions of dollars of undisclosed money pouring into our elections.

But how can there be reform? The Court has tied the hands of Congress. Until the Constitution is amended, we cannot enact real reforms: reforms like McCain-Feingold. The Court will just strike them down. We are headed back to the pre-Watergate era.

In 2012, outside groups spent $457 million dollars to influence Senate and House races. In 2008, before Citizens United, they spent $43 million dollars. That's a tenfold increase. There is an obvious trend, and deeply troubling. Much of that money is hidden. According to a recent report by the Brennan Center, over half of the money spent in this year's top nine Senate races is not fully disclosed. So, in two months, we will know the outcome of these elections, but we won't know who paid for them.

We have a broken system, and there are only two ways to fix it. First, the Court could reverse itself, but that is unlikely. Or we can amend the Constitution, to make it clear that the people have the right to regulate campaign finance. Until then, we will fall short of real reform. That is why a constitutional amendment is essential: because the time has come to give power back to the elected representatives of the people.

Opponents say this is just an election year stunt, but again, this argument ignores history. Our amendment is similar to other bipartisan amendments introduced in nearly every Congress since 1983 when Ted Stevens-a Republican- was the lead sponsor. Many prominent Republicans cosponsored and voted for these amendments over the course of three decades, people like John Danforth, Strom Thurmond, Nancy Kassebaum, Arlen Specter, John McCain, Thad Cochran. This was always a bipartisan effort, and that was before Citizens United, before McCutcheon, when things went from bad to worse.

It is not a radical idea. In fact, it's pretty simple. It would give back power to Congress to regulate campaign finance at the federal level, and to states at the state level. That's it. Period. We do not dictate specific reforms. We can debate the specifics, and should, but Congress has a duty and a right to enact sensible campaign finance reform.

The American people support reform, because they know a basic truth, no matter how hard some may try to obscure it. When the Court says money is free speech, there is a great risk that special interests can drown out the voices of everyone else. We know you don't get something for nothing, and that the folks writing those checks want something in return. Whether it's Democratic billionaires or Republican billionaires, they want value for the money, which usually means less compromise and more gridlock.

Opponents of reform are in full throttle, by ignoring history and torturing logic. But let's be clear: they oppose any limits. They oppose any restrictions on how big the checks are, or even saying which billionaire is writing them. It is hard to defend that, so instead they change the subject and talk about threats to free speech, which goes something like this: If Congress can regulate campaign finance spending, then it could also regulate free speech. This is a straw man argument not supported by history, law, or logic. This isn't persuasion, it is scare tactics.

Congress has a long history of regulating campaign finance since 1867. Congress banned solicitation of campaign funds from Naval yard government employees. We've had the Pendleton Act, the Tillman Act, the Teapot Dome and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, the Hatch Act, the Watergate and the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, and the Bipartisan Campaign Act of 2002.

First there is scandal and then there is reform. That is the unfortunate pattern, and every generation has faced that challenge for ethical government and for standing up to the power of big money. Congress has acted. It has not banned books, suppressed preachers, or stopped printing presses. Reforms have been modest, reasonable and responsive - sensible enough to pass both houses of Congress, and get the signature of the President. We have to answer to our constituents, unlike Supreme Court justices.

Further, our amendment does not give Congress free rein. There is still a reasonableness requirement. In the Court's interpretation of any constitutional amendment, if Congress did pass extreme law, the Court could still overturn them as unreasonable. The First Amendment is in full effect.

There's a classic example: we protect free speech, but you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. Reasonable is not a complicated idea, except maybe here in Washington, or to billionaires who demand their way or the highway.

Opponents also argue that our amendment protects incumbents. This again misses the point. If anything, the current system favors incumbents. Raising 10, 15, or 20 million dollars for a Senate seat is a tall order, and one that many qualified candidates will decline. And if you are elected, this is just the beginning of an endless campaign cycle to compete, to keep up, and to raise more money.

Every member in this body can speak to this. They can speak to the hours on the phone dialing for dollars, when our time could be better spent meeting the real needs of our constituents and serving the folks who sent us here in the first place.

This is not about free speech, and the American people know it. It's about wealthy interests trying to buy elections, in secret, with no limits. Period.

Changing the Constitution is a big step, and is not to be taken lightly. But it is necessary, and the momentum is growing. For the first time, here today we may have a majority in the Senate.

Today's vote is a step forward towards restoring our democracy. Four years ago, when Senator Dodd and I introduced this amendment, Senators Bennet and Specter signed on as the only cosponsors. Today, we have 49 cosponsors. The amendment received a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, went through markups in Senator Durbin's subcommittee, and in the full committee. It was debated, revised, and improved. A House companion measure has been introduced that has more than 115 cosponsors. I want to thank Chairman Leahy and Senator Durbin for their efforts, and to thank their staff, particularly Josh Hsu and Albert Sanders.

We will continue this fight, because our elections should be about the quality of ideas and not the size of bank accounts. We will continue this fight because we should be fighting for the middle class, not the moneyed class.

We are part of a long history. It's a long struggle with bipartisan support. And I really want to stress that: these have been bipartisan efforts.

Even if today's vote is along party lines, that does not reflect the will of Republicans outside of Washington. Today, The Hill published an op-ed I wrote with my good friend, former Senator Al Simpson. Al has always been one to speak his mind. When he edited our draft, he added that "the playing field in our democracy is far from level, and that is driving cynicism, disgust and mistrust of the political process to dangerous levels." Sadly, he is right.

It is time to limit the power of big money to give everyone a say--not just the rich or powerful, but everyone. We can't hand our democracy over to the biggest spender.

There is a famous phrase from the Watergate era: follow the money. We all know the truth that the road to corruption, to undue influence, is paved with money.

We need to get off that road for the integrity of our electoral system, for the people who send us here, and for the future of our country. This amendment will do that. And I urge my colleagues-on both sides of the aisle-to support it.