Democrats' answer to the Koch brothers

Last Updated Jun 3, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to debate a constitutional amendment to regulate campaign spending.

The rare joint appearance comes amid Reid's ongoing, campaign-year effort to portray Republicans as shills to billionaire donors like Charles and David Koch. It also comes in the wake of multiple Supreme Court rulings that have dramatically changed the rules of campaign spending. The 2010 Citizens United ruling cleared the way for corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics, while this year's McCutcheon ruling eliminated limits on the total amount individuals can donate to candidates. Those cases built on the precedent set in 1976, when the court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that restricting independent campaign expenditures violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

Following the Citizens United decision, Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., drafted a constitutional amendment that would restore to Congress the authority to regulate and limit the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns -- including independent expenditures from groups like super PACs. It would also allow states to regulate campaign spending at their level.

"The Citizens United decision did a huge disservice to the American people's right to know who is trying to sway their vote," Bennet said last year. "A campaign finance structure that increases transparency will help restore confidence in our democracy. This amendment gets to the heart of that effort."

About a month ago, Reid announced his support for the amendment, and he has promised that the full Senate will vote on it once the Judiciary Committee approves it.

"I understand what we Senate Democrats are proposing is no small thing - amending our Constitution is not something we take lightly," Reid said on the Senate floor in mid-May. "But the flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the greatest threats our system of government has ever faced. Let's keep our elections from becoming speculative ventures for the wealthy and put a stop to the hostile takeover of our democratic system by a couple of billionaire oil barons."

Reid has paid special attention to a certain "couple of billionaire oil barons" -- the Koch brothers.

"The Koch's bid for a hostile takeover of the American democracy is calculated to make themselves even richer," Reid said in the same Senate floor speech. "Yet, the Kochs and their Republican followers in Congress continue to assert that these hundreds of millions of dollars are free speech."

Reid has repeatedly slammed the Koch brothers this year, along with their Republican beneficiaries. The anti-Koch campaign is not only an effective fundraising appeal for Democrats, but also a way to repackage a 2012 campaign pitch: The GOP is the party of the 1 percent.

"How could everyday, working American families afford to make their voices heard, if money equals free speech?" Reid asked on the Senate floor.

In his remarks to the Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Reid talked about his personal experience with the changing rules of campaign finance.

"I've been asking Nevadans to vote for me for decades, and I've seen firsthand how this dark money is perverting our political system," Reid told the committee.

In his 1998 election against John Ensign -- before the McCain-Feingold Act reined in political spending in 2002 -- Reid said both he and his opponent spent about $10 million each. The large sums of money involved made Reid feel "unclean, for lack of a better word," he said.

"A person could give lots of money," he said. "One person gave a quarter of a million for the state party. Of course, he wanted me to know he had done it. I hope that it did not corrupt me, but it was corrupting."

After the McCain-Feingold Act passed, "It was like I had taken a bath, I felt so clean because it was an election that -- everyone involved in a federal election had to list where they got the money, there was a limit to how much you could ask and get from someone else," Reid said. Then, when the Citizens United ruling struck down parts of McCain-Feingold, Reid said it was "back into the sewer."

During the 2012 presidential campaign, outside groups spent more than $1 billion, Reid noted -- about as much outside spending as took place in the previous 10 elections combined.

Republicans have countered that wealthy Americans shouldn't be castigated for attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights. They've also pointed out that the left has its share of wealthy supporters, such as Tom Steyer, the California billionaire financing a campaign to promote climate change issues this year.

"The First Amendment is about empowering the people, not the government," McConnell said in a statement. "The proposed amendment has it exactly backwards. It says that Congress and the states can pass whatever law they want abridging political speech -- the speech that is at the very core of the First Amendment."

McConnell charges that the amendment is one more example of Democrats attempting to silence those who disagree with them. As further proof of this behavior, he pointed to the misconduct at the IRS, when bureaucrats there targeted certain tax-exempt groups for extra scrutiny.

The proposed amendment, McConnell told the committee Tuesday, "would empower incumbent politicians in Congress to write the rules on who gets to speak and who doesn't. The American people should be concerned."

By including a provision that expressly says Congress cannot abridge the freedom of the press, McConnell said the amendment would "allow the government to favor certain speakers over others -- it would guarantee preferential treatment."

He continued, "This is really great if you're a corporation that owns a newspaper -- you get your speech, but nobody else does."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested the amendment amounted to "repealing the First Amendment."

"Nothing in this amendment is limited to corporations or billionaires," he said. "Would give Congress absolute authority to regulate the political speech of every single American... When did elected Democrats abandon the Bill of Rights?"

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