While much of Washington grapples with international crises, chronic economic troubles and upcoming midterm elections, Senate Democrats are steadily pushing forward with what they hope will become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The proposed amendment would give Congress authority to regulate every dollar raised, and every dollar spent, by every federal campaign and candidate in the country. It would give state legislatures the power to do the same with state races.
Framed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a response to campaign spending by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the proposed amendment, written by Democratic Senators Tom Udall and Michael Bennet and co-sponsored by 42 other Senate Democrats, would vastly increase the power of Congress to control elections and political speech.
The problem is, Democrats aren’t quite sure exactly what the amendment should say. This is the heart of the amendment as originally written by Udall and Bennet: “To advance the fundamental principle of political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes, Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to federal elections, including through setting limits on –
• “(1) the amount of contributions to candidates for nomination for election to, or for election to, federal office; and
• “(2) the amount of funds that may be spent by, in support of, or in opposition to such candidates.”
There are literally no limits to congressional power in those words. In the name of “political equality for all,” Democrats proposed to change the Constitution to allow lawmakers to impose any restriction they want on campaign fundraising and spending – in other words, on campaigning itself.
Republicans characterized the Udall-Bennet amendment as a clear infringement of First Amendment free speech rights, as well as a particularly naked power grab by Congress. Democrats responded that the proposed measure was in fact a reasonable response to the “problem” of money in politics, represented in their view by the Kochs.
Democrats passed the amendment; that was never in doubt. But the little-noticed debate showed that with a proposal as far-reaching and deeply troubling as this constitutional amendment, inserting the word “reasonable” doesn’t make it so.
• Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.