After six years of economic stagnation, a pile of foreign-policy failures, and an unpopular health-care law, Senate Democrats are desperately trying to change the subject. Led by Democratic majority leader Harry Reid, they’ve returned to their old political well of character assassination and catchy but half-baked policy proposals. The latest issue they’ve chosen? Changing the Constitution’s Bill of Rights to limit the right to free speech under the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court has protected the First Amendment right of Americans to participate in the political process — the heart of the Constitution’s free-speech guarantee. To quote a recent decision, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. Citizens can exercise that right in a variety of ways: They can run for office themselves, vote, urge others to vote for a particular candidate, volunteer to work on a campaign, and contribute to the candidate’s campaign.” The opinion further affirms that “the right to participate in a democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute.”
Apparently, that right to free speech is too absolute for Senator Reid. Without any positive agenda, he’s spent weeks bemoaning the right of individual Americans to commit their resources, within certain limits, to the political process.
Senator Reid directs his ire exclusively at individual donors who happen to disagree with his political philosophy — he says nary a word about the big donors to him and his Democratic colleagues.
The fact that some citizens support campaigns the majority leader doesn’t like is a silly reason for him to demagogue. It is no reason to call for legislation. And it is a dangerous basis upon which to call for limiting the most fundamental freedom the Constitution provides.
All Americans should be deeply skeptical of a pending constitutional amendment that Senator Reid has vowed to usher through the Senate. If ratified, it would subvert the freedom of speech we enjoy under the First Amendment by giving Congress carte blanche to regulate how Americans choose to contribute to the political process.
It would give a group of people who benefit from campaign contributions (Congress) complete authority to write the rules on those contributions. It’s not hard to see how rife for abuse this would be — especially in light of Senator Reid’s crusade to besmirch his political opponents.
Imagine a scenario in which one party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress (as the Democrats did in 2010, or the Republicans did in 2006). Now imagine the party in power foresees an electoral tidal wave that threatens to sweep it out of power (as the Democrats did in 2010 and the Republicans did in 2006). With this amendment in place, the majority party would have the constitutional authority to pass a law that tips the scales in its favor.
In other words, Harry Reid is not just advocating for an amendment that empowers Congress; he is advocating for an amendment that empowers Harry Reid.
Senator Reid’s campaign has nothing to do with improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Nor is it about reducing the influence of money in politics. Senator Reid seeks nothing more — or less — than a dramatic expansion of government control over political debate. That is the opposite of democracy.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the Founders made it very difficult to amend the Constitution. To do so requires an overwhelming majority of the governed, and I’m confident that the American people will see Senator Reid’s gambit as the folly that it is.
In the meantime, we should all commit ourselves to a simple notion: No matter where you land on the political spectrum, no matter how much of your own money you decide to contribute, no matter how much you disagree with your opponents, every citizen has a valid role to play in our nation’s governance — and our constitutional right to free speech protects that role.
— Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) is the Republican whip.