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Senators Pursue Campaign Finance Amendment

Buckley no more?

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York and a bipartisan bloc of other senators are pushing a constitutional amendment to overturn the 1976 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that campaign expenditures are protected free speech and cannot be regulated by Congress.

Schumer and Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) want to amend the U.S. Constitution to restore Congress’ right to create a new campaign finance system. Their chief aim is to overturn Buckley v. Valeo, the key to the current campaign finance system.

The high court ruled that Congress can limit the size of contributions to individual candidates for federal office, but it struck down restrictions on candidates’ expenditures and how much individuals or outside groups can spend on independent expenditures related to political campaigns. It also voided limits on the amount wealthy candidates can spend on their own races.

The “Buckley” in Buckley v. Valeo is the late Sen. James Buckley (C-N.Y.), while “Valeo” is Francis Valeo, who served as secretary of the Senate when the legislation was adopted in 1974. Buckley and other parties, including former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, sued to block the law from going into effect, and the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case in January 1976.

“The court’s decision in Buckley, which equated money with speech, was fundamentally flawed,” Harkin said Thursday when introducing the resolution. “Unfortunately, since that decision, our democracy has been perverted. Costs of elections have spiraled out of control, office seekers are required to spend more time than ever raising money and special interests correspondingly have greater access than ever before. As a result, the integrity of our democracy continues to wane.”

“Without this amendment, our nation is simply too limited in its ability to deal with corruption and to restore confidence in our electoral system,” Harkin added. “The integrity of our democratic system not only deems it appropriate for us to approve a constitutional amendment, it requires it.”

The senators did not offer any plans for a new campaign finance system, but instead voiced their disapproval of the current, increasingly arcane regulatory scheme.

The bipartisan measure was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. To become law, it would require two-thirds approval by Congress, followed by ratification by three-quarters of the states within seven years.

All in all, a real long shot.