This is part one of two covering a double-block segment at the top of All In with Chris Hayes on Friday, May 16. The first part of Hayes’ segment is the basic report on the Democrats’ plan to push a vote in the U.S. Senate on a constitutional amendment to enable Congress to enact campaign finance reform and includes an interview with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). The second half is a discussion with the politics editor for Business Insider, Josh Barro, a self-described neoconservative Republican, on the practical implications of an amendment (in this case, the Udall proposal) on the electoral process and the Bill of Rights, and will be addressed in part two.
It’s somewhat refreshing to hear a Senator admit that any vote on a partisan amendment proposal has zero chance of passage with the required super majorities in both chambers but Sen. Murphy stops short of admitting that it’s more about party-building than it is about building a movement.
Sen. Murphy: “I don’t think it’s a news flash that this constitutional amendment is not likely to pass but the point here is that we need to wake the American people up to what’s happening. This is not about politics or about energizing our base, this is about trying to inspire a movement of regular, average, everyday people out there who recognize that there are 190 or so people out there that are 60% of the donors to super PACs, who, by the way, are now spending more money in campaigns than individual candidates are together, that are on the verge of taking over our democracy.”
Sen. Murphy is right to point out that a small number of would-be oligarchs now spend more than half of the money used in each campaign cycle. But broad, bipartisan movements generally don’t start in Congress. They start in the grass roots and build the kind of power and momentum that forces politicians to recognize that their political futures depend on responding to the will of the majority of the American people. Speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate can be useful for gaining some media coverage for an issue but the flip side is that the media will always include the rebuttal by the other party, portraying an important kitchen table issue as yet another intractable Washington logjam. The quotes used on Chris Hayes’ program illustrate this point:
Sen. Reid: “I understand that we Senate Democrats are proposing something that’s no small thing. Amending our Constitution is not something any of us should take lightly. But the flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the glaring threats our system of government has ever faced.”
Sen. McConnell: “Instead of robust, free-wheeling debate about the important issues of today, we get bizarre monologues about the Democrats latest villain. We get silly, shameful attacks on private citizens. They’re already muzzling our constituents by blocking amendments, now they want to muzzle them even more by changing the Bill of Rights.”
Chris Hayes obviously puts his spin on this issue but most of the beltway-soaked, view-from-nowhere media will simply put the quotes side by side and leave viewers with the impression that there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides. The corporate mouthpieces in mainstream media are not the people who can be trusted to help spread a message to “wake the American people up to what’s happening.” If Senate Democrats are serious about firing up more than just the Democratic base, this issue will become a key component in trying to win over swing voters over the next several elections cycles and forcing opponents to either adopt the same position or explain their opposition on the campaign trail. If not, it’s nothing but a party-building exercise, which is what most of the amendment proposals, including the Udall proposal, appear to be.
Sen. Murphy belied his broad movement ideals when he said:
“Republican candidates themselves have kind of stopped raising money because, if they get in a tough race, one of these big robber barons will just ride to their rescue. And so, within the Republican party in particular, this is a vicious downward spiral in which there’s increased dependency on this small handful of a couple dozen super donors.”
“It is a Republican party problem because right now the dominant amount of money is on the Republican side. And Tom Steyer is a total red herring in the sense that Steyer is working to try to effectuate policy that has little to nothing to do with his business interests, whereas the Koch brothers and Adelson and others are in this game to try to make themselves more money.”
Motive is totally irrelevant but Sen. Murphy isn’t alone in advancing this double standard. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has been relentless in his attacks on the Koch brothers but when NBC’s Chuck Todd recently asked him what distinguishes their spending from that of Nevada billionaire and prolific super PAC donor Sheldon Adelson, Reid defended Adelson.
“Sheldon Adelson’s social views are in keeping with the Democrats. On choice, on all kinds of things. So, Sheldon Adelson don’t pick on him. He’s not in it to make money.”
Once again, motive is totally irrelevant and pretending to be able to make a distinction between the motives of different political donors is exactly the kind of thing that critics of the amendment movement cite as a reason to abide by the Supreme Court’s definition of spending money as a form of protected speech. Sen. Reid’s double standard didn’t go unnoticed by John Stewart and company.
Senate democrats, in their zeal to use an amendment as a party-building exercise, are making a mockery of the movement to amend the Constitution to abolish money as speech and corporate constitutional rights. While they claim to be on the side of the people, they are actually just as addicted to pleasing wealthy donors as their political opponents. This is why this movement is not yet ready for a proposal to be advanced to the states. Until many millions of Americans from across the political spectrum are prepared to keep their representatives honest on this issue, both parties will exploit it for cynical political gain while plunging our tattered republic deeper into the uncharted waters of oligarchy.
In the second half of Hayes segment, Josh Barro suggested that because there are costs associated with advertising, direct mail and other forms of communication and, therefore, any amount of spending on such activities must, by definition, be considered a form of constitutionally protected speech, he then attempted to put the entire amendment movement on the defensive.
Barro: “I think people who want this amendment should admit that it’s a restriction on speech.”
Again and again Mr. Barro continues to frame an amendment as a “restriction on speech,” which is simply false. A restriction on the amplification of speech is not a restriction on the content of speech. Opponents of campaign finance regulations attempt to conflate a non-existent Congressional power to prohibit types of speech with traditional Congressional authority to limit the amount of speech that any single person or group can purchase. This and other aspects of the false premises that underpin Josh Barro’s arguments are dissected in part two.