Citizens United, the Senate, and a Seat at the Hearing
July 21, 2014
Author: Serena Advani, W’17 & C’17
There’s something about interning on Capitol Hill that is impossible to find anywhere else. Maybe it’s the feeling you get passing the Supreme Court on the way to work, or the ability to walk through the Capitol’s Rotunda while running errands. It could be the high likelihood of running into senators in the hallway, or the chance to sit in on hearings with presidents of multinational corporations. Wherever you go, whatever you do, the knowledge that you’re in the middle of the beating heart of American government is intoxicating, exhilarating and undeniably inspiring.
Of the many amazing experiences I had this summer, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on campaign finance reform proved to be one of the most eye-opening. The discussion focused on the prospect of the Senate Judiciary Committee to overturn the precedence for campaign finance set by the Citizens United ruling with Senate Joint Resolution 19, a Constitutional Amendment to Restore Democracy to American People. At 10:30 A.M.(late in the day by the standards of a city that never truly turns off, government shutdowns notwithstanding), on June 3rd, dozens of congressional staffers, activists, citizens, senators, and interns gathered in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting room in the Dirksen Office Building. Even though I arrived around half an hour early, a long line had already snaked outside along the bustling halls of the building.
The hearing began with an introduction of the proposed amendment; supporters of the legislation believe that the 2010 Citizens United ruling undermines the integrity of campaign finance and that congressional action is necessary to overturn the Court’s decision. As activists looked on proudly (some with their mouths taped shut as a sign of solidarity against voter disenfranchisement), dozens of boxes of petitions in favor of the amendment were wheeled into the room. Over two million signatures had been counted in the days prior to the hearing.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley explained that the Constitution was adopted to secure liberty and agreed that the Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech. Senator Grassley, however, clarified that the Bill of Rights only pertains to individual rights and that the proposed amendment would make it difficult for candidates to challenge incumbents. Furthermore, the senator believes that the issue should not even be debated by Congress but rather left up to the Supreme Court, since four Supreme Court Justices are currently opposed to campaign donations from corporations and it is possible that a fifth justice would agree, thus eliminating the need for legislative action. Senator Mitch McConnell agreed that the amendment should not be passed; he suggested that previously proposed amendments similar to this one have been defeated, with legislation from 1998 and 2001 as examples. He believes that the “first amendment hasn’t ever been amended, so it shouldn’t be amended now.”
Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz also expressed extreme disapproval of the proposed amendment. He believes that passing it would entail “repealing free speech.” He stated that the “Constitution was not a rough draft,” so amendments such as this one should not be considered. Senator Cruz also focused on the fact that 42 Democratic Senators had supported this legislation, and he questioned the audience about why “the Democrats abandoned the Bill of Rights.” After his undoubtedly enthusiastic testimony, a witness from North Carolina’s General Assembly joined the discussion.
Senator Floyd McKissick Jr., the North Carolina State Senate Deputy Minority Leader, spoke about how he wanted to make a difference in politics until one individual joined the NC political arena after the Citizens United ruling. Art Pope, a businessman and CEO of a retail wholesale chain, injected money into 22 campaigns in different races across the state. For example, he flooded $8.2 million into NC gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory’s race. Eighteen of the candidates he supported were elected, and as soon as Governor McCrory was sworn into office, Art Pope was appointed as the North Carolina State Budget Director. “There are winners and losers in every budget, and Art Pope won,” said McKissick. North Carolina has since been under national scrutiny for the policies Governor McCrory has supported, including shortened early voting periods and strict new voter identification laws that can hurt teens, students, the elderly, and minorities. McKissick asserted, “Public service is calling. What we have now doesn’t look like democracy because ordinary people’s voices are getting drowned out.”
Another guest, Floyd Abrams, a partner at Cahill Gordon and Reindel and an expert on constitutional law, contributed with his comments against the legislation. He reiterated the argument that the legislation would only provide incumbents with an advantage, since their names would already be familiar to voters, even without additional campaign spending. “The notion that democracy would be saved [if the legislation is passed] is overkill and a misuse of American language,” he stated.
Senator Patrick Leahy wrapped the hearing up with a testimony in favor of the proposed amendment. He stated that the “history of our Constitution has been of progressive inclusion of all people who are able to be political participants, such as minorities and women.” He refuted Senator Cruz’s argument that the Constitution should never evolve by asserting that the United States has “a dynamic constitution, which has been amended before.”
Overall, the hearing was a chance for senators to learn from each other and experts, and it was a chance for Congressional staffers and interns to hear more about a topic that millions of constituents care about deeply. I’m still surprised by the fact that I, as a college student, could hear from those who make the policy decisions that affect every American citizen. Not only did I learn more about campaign finance reform, but I also had the chance to experience the ability for citizens to listen in and be a part of the political process. The fact that Penn has taught us to engage with our communities made my experience in D.C. so much more valuable. From the Penn-Wharton Public Policy Initiative events that are held throughout the year to the clubs that promote causes along Locust Walk every morning, the culture of engagement is a great one to bring to D.C. as an intern, and it has helped spark my interest in topics such as campaign finance. We may not (actually, we definitely do not) all agree on every political issue out there, but the ability for us to sit together at a hearing and express our opinions – for every voice, every elected Senator, to be heard – is what makes America great.
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