Senate Democrats Push Constitutional Amendment to Reverse Citizens United

Democrats in Congress keep up campaign finance reform push in hearing after failure of DISCLOSE Act.

By + More

Last month, the Supreme Court upheld one of the most controversial laws on the books. Wednesday, Congress convened to discuss ways to get around it.

The issue? Not healthcare reform, but Citizens United v. FEC, the ruling that opened the door for super PACs and unlimited political spending in elections. As Congress did last week in voting on the DISCLOSE Act, it met to discuss how to get reform campaign finance and circumvent the court's decision in Citizens United, and a case that reaffirmed it last month.

[Supreme Court Reaffirms Citizens United]

"Free and fair elections are a founding principle of our democracies, they should not be for sale to the highest bidder," said Sen. Mark Udall of New Mexico. "We must do something: The voice of the people is clear and so is their disgust."

After last month's ruling, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana pushed for consideration of his constitutional amendment, which would give states and Congress the power to regulate spending by corporations and labor unions. At Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which no Republicans chose to attend, lawmakers led by Baucus and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin asked that their various reform attempts, some through law and others through constitutional amendment, be considered to reverse the effects of Citizens United.

"I've been reluctant to sponsor constitutional amendments," Durbin said. "I think you have to be careful taking a roller to a Rembrandt."

It was a sentiment echoed in much of the testimony. But reform advocates such as Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer said that, if the Supreme Court wouldn't change its mind on the subject, a constitutional amendment is the only way to reverse the decision.

"Our system is broken, Mr. Chairman," Roemer told Durbin. "It will not be repaired by those who profit from its impairment."

[Sheldon Adelson Willing To Spend $100 Million to Defeat Obama]

So far this year, in the first presidential election since the Citizens United decision, outside spending has exploded beyond previous years' levels. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $203 million has been spent by outside groups, more than double the previous high in 2008. That number doesn't tell the whole story, either, as huge chunks of political spending is kept hidden by political 501(c) groups, which don't disclose their spending or donors.

Advocates of Citizens United argue that the decision allowed for more discussion by removing limits on political speech.

"Really, although people don't like to hear it, [Citizens United] has been very successful," says Brad Smith, chairman of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics. "We've had more competitive races, higher turnout, more voices being heard. There's just no reason [to overturn it]."

Polls have found that Americans oppose the effects that Citizens United has had on politics. Ahead of today's hearing, reform activists delivered 1.9 million signatures calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. Still, a constitutional amendment is a long shot—it requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, and then must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Seth Cline is a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. Contact him at scline@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.