Sen. McConnell Makes the Case

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky.,smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, following his test
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky.,smiles on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, following his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "examining a constitutional amendment to restore democracy to the American people". (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Those of us working on political money issues have a fresh appreciation today for the old saying that politics makes for strange bedfellows. That's because Sen. Mitch McConnell, long known as a champion of big money in politics, has made a stunningly compelling case for a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and the states to restore sensible limits on political spending. We appreciate his help and his clarity.

By happy coincidence, the Senate will vote on just such a proposal next month, the Democracy for All Amendment (S.J. Res 19). Senators still undecided about the amendment should study Sen. McConnell's remarks carefully.

As reported by The Nation and The Huffington Post, McConnell spoke in June to a roomful of ultra-rich political investors and voiced his delight at their collective success in unharnessing political money. "The worst day on my political life" was when then-President George W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold law with its limits on independent political spending, he declared. He paid particular tribute to industrialists Charles and David Koch, the country's most prolific political spenders: "I don't know where we'd be without you," he told them.

Sen. McConnell called the Democracy for All Amendment radical; it is anything but. In a few sentences, it restores an understanding of the Constitution that was in place for at least a century until recently unraveled by the Roberts court. It affirms that money is not speech and that no one, however wealthy or powerful, has a constitutional right to spend unlimited sums to influence our elections.

A poll conducted for CBS News in May found that 71 percent of Americans support reasonable limits on political spending. A survey this month in "battleground" states for this November's elections, including Sen. McConnell's home state of Kentucky, found 73 percent support a constitutional amendment. These are your radicals, Senator.

McConnell argued that proposals to limit political spending are aimed at silencing critics of government. Singling out Common Cause, he accuses those who favor a system that pays for campaigns with a mix of public funds and small dollar donations from individuals of trying to elevate Democrats and defeat Republicans.

Nonsense. The Democracy for All Amendment would protect the First Amendment; every citizen's right to express their views, however unpopular or unconventional, would remain fully intact. Corporations also would continue to speak; the amendment simply would permit sensible controls on how much they and individuals can spend to influence elections.

As for public financing, Republicans routinely run and win using public funds in states with voluntary public financing systems. In my home state of Connecticut, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley has opted to run on public financing this year; Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer used her state's public financing system when she won in 2010. The "clean elections" or "fair elections" systems in these states encourage candidates of all parties to focus on issues important to the general public rather than the parochial concerns of a handful of funders.

The real radicals are those who argue that their free speech rights are a license to use their wealth -- corporate or individual -- to drown out the voices of other Americans. They view the Citizens United decision, which invited corporations to spend freely on our elections, as having -- in Sen. McConnell's words -- "leveled the playing field for corporations."

The American people know better.