Monday marked the first day of Senate debate on the Democracy for All amendment. Not only did it clear an important procedural hurdle, but we heard from many strong champions of getting money out and voters in, and from those who, contrary to the views of three fourths of the American public, are satisfied with the democratic imbalance created by Citizens United and related cases.
Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa each claimed to know what this debate is really all about.
In reality what this amendment would do would be to undermine some of our most cherished, most fundamental, and most important liberties.
They want to silence their opponents. The First Amendment does not allow them to do so, so they are going to try and change it.
The amendment being proposed would put those who would engage in political speech on notice that they may be prosecuted for being active citizens in our democracy.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois was there to set the record straight, about the true reality of this debate, and about the seriousness with which Democracy for All supporters have approached this historic step forward in the movement to take back our democracy from powerful corporations and billionaires.
Six constitutional amendments, landmark civil rights legislation, and Supreme Court decisions helped make the promise of one person and one vote a reality. We must, in our time, in our generation, be constantly vigilant against threats to these victories which were won through the blood, sweat, tears, and even the lives of many Americans. That is why we are engaged in this debate today, because the right to vote is under siege. It is in peril. A well-funded, coordinated effort has made it harder for millions of Americans to vote and at the same time unleashed a tidal wave of special interest and corporate money into elections to drown out the voices of average Americans . . . During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court said this of the right to vote. It was ‘‘the right preservative of all other rights.’’ And he pledged to be a neutral umpire, calling balls and strikes when it came to issues such as the right to vote. But because of the judicial activism of Chief Justice Roberts and his four conservative allies, the right to vote of average Americans is now at greater risk than any time since the Jim Crow era.
Other highlights from day one:
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada:
If spending is speech, where does that leave the rest of the American people? Should their role in democracy be diminished because they are paying a mortgage and sending kids to college? Should a family hard hit by a recession— let’s say they are out of work— does that mean they shouldn’t have any say at the ballot box? Should families hard hit by the recession take a back seat in our government to a couple of billionaires? Right now the answer is yes.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont:
The Court’s radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment contradicts the principles of freedom, equality, and self-government upon which this Nation was founded. The consequence of the Court’s opinions is that a small, tiny minority of very wealthy individuals and special interests are drowning out the voices of hard-working Americans and skewing our electoral process. What they are saying is: I have millions of dollars. I have a voice in elections. You? You are just an average hard-working man or woman, and you do not have any voice.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts:
This is an extraordinary situation. The Supreme Court overturned a century of precedent, voiding campaign finance restrictions passed by Congress and making it far easier for millionaires, billionaires, and big corporations to flood our elections with massive amounts of money. The Supreme Court is helping them buy elections . . . This is the time to amend the Constitution. I urge my colleagues to support this effort. We were not sent to Congress to run this country for a handful of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations. We were sent here to do our best to make this country work for all our people.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, lead sponsor of the Democracy for All amendment:
Folks want Congress to get to work and work together so we can find real solutions to real problems and spend our time raising hopes instead of raising cash. That is why Senator Bennet and I have introduced our constitutional amendment and that is what I wish to talk about today.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont:
People do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns for fun, for the hell of it; they are spending money because they have an agenda. And the billionaire agenda is not the agenda of the American people . . . I am not saying every Republican adheres to every aspect of this agenda, but [the Koch brothers] are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process for a reason, and that reason is to make the wealthiest people in this country even wealthier while they do away with all legislation that protects working families.
You can find these passages and more from Monday’s debate here.