Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Proposed Constitutional Amendment To Permit Campaign Finance Reform To Stem The Flood Of ‘Dark Money’ Into The Political Process

[The Senate held the showdown vote Thursday afternoon on the proposed constitutional amendment.  In a vote of 54-42, the Senate fell six votes short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and prevent a filibuster on the resolution.  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, supported it and successfully steered it through the Judiciary Committee’s approval of the proposed amendment earlier this summer.  Following is his closing statement in the week-long debate:]



I have heard from many Vermonters concerned about the threat posed to our democracy by recent Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated our campaign finance laws.  Just as opponents of campaign finance reform in the past described a parade of horribles that would occur if we strengthened campaign finance protections, today we again hear those exaggerations from the other side of the aisle.  Some Republicans have falsely asserted that this resolution would somehow repeal the First Amendment and would even result in the banning of books.  That is pure hyperbole. 

Restoring the role that Congress and the States have traditionally had to set reasonable limits on how much a corporation or a millionaire can spend to influence an election is simply not the equivalent of prohibiting an individual from speaking out on a candidate.  The constitutional amendment before the Senate does not ban or proscribe anything.  It restores the ability of future States or Congresses to set reasonable limits if they decide to act but of course those limits would be guided by the American peoples’ desire for such laws. 

Over the course of this debate, we have heard Senators talking as if the First Amendment is absolute.  Most Americans can see right through this.  They know that the First Amendment does not protect child pornography; or obscenity; or statements that incite imminent lawless action; or defamation or slander; or speech integral to criminal conduct; or fraudulent speech or perjury.  And they know that the First Amendment is not violated when laws restrict even political speech by regulating the reasonable time, place, and manner of demonstrations or protests.  The idea that any future law on campaign contributions and expenditures that has an incidental effect on speech somehow renders it the equivalent of censorship is just not a serious argument.

The framers of our fundamental charter anticipated that it would need to be amended from time to time.  The story of our how our Constitution has been amended over the years is a reflection on our democracy.  It is a story of inclusion and expansion of our representative democracy.  The 14th and 15th Amendments, for example, guaranteed equal protection of the law for all Americans, and ensured that all Americans have the right to vote regardless of their race.  The 17th Amendment gave Americans the right to directly elect their representatives in Congress in the wake of concerns that corporations were corrupting state legislatures to choose Senators beholden to them.  The 19th Amendment’s expansion of the right to vote to women and the 26th Amendment’s extension of the vote to young people made ours an even more representative democracy.

Those who oppose the amendment before us have made some outlandish claims.  One of them was that we cannot consider this amendment because in their view it would be the first time that changes were made to the Bill of Rights.  What is interesting is that opponents to previous constitutional amendments also claimed that they should not be adopted because they impacted the Bill of Rights.  In the June hearing that I chaired before the Judiciary Committee, Professor Jamie Raskin testified that “the people have been forced to amend the Constitution multiple times to reverse reactionary decisions of the Supreme Court that freeze into place the constitutional property rights and political privileges of the powerful against the powerless.”  The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, stripping the absolute individual “property rights” that white slave masters had enjoyed under the Fifth Amendment as found by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision in 1857.  Similarly, Section 4 of the 14th Amendment completely blocked and made illegal any future compensation of slave masters for the confiscation of their vested “property rights” in their slaves.  Not only did the Fourteenth Amendment strip slave masters of their “property,” it also made it impossible for them to seek restitution under the Fifth Amendment.  Opponents to the 13th and 14th Amendments felt that their rights, granted by the Bill of Rights, were being undermined but history showed that those Amendments were necessary to move this great nation toward a more perfect union.  The amendment before the Senate would restore the First Amendment.  It would not repeal it.  It would, however, overturn several Supreme Court decisions that have distorted the First Amendment.  If we fail to do so, many of us are concerned that corruption will flourish and our democracy will be distorted away from the needs of hard working Americans. 

Millions of Americans have called on Congress to restore the First Amendment so that our democracy will be protected against corruption and so that everyone’s voices can be heard in our democratic process.  I have served in the Senate for almost 40 years and as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for nearly 10.  It is a rare moment for this Senator to acknowledge that the threat to our democracy is so significant that it warrants an amendment to our Constitution.  I applaud the Vermonters who have taken action on this issue. I urge my fellow Senators to join me in voting for cloture and passage of this important constitutional amendment. 

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