The battle lines were clear: For Democrats, the amendment was nothing short of a last bastion against a deluge of dark money funneled into elections by a tiny number of the country's wealthiest. And for Republicans, the amendment would be nothing less than a complete dismemberment of our sacred right to freedom of speech.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a rare appearance before the Judiciary Committee committee, and both looked back on their shared history of campaigns before the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002, which limited campaign contributions from organizations. Their recollections, however, could not have been more different.
"In 1988, Senator McConnell's own constitutional amendment empowered Congress to enact laws regulating the amount of independent expenditures," Reid said. "I find it hard to fathom that any of my Republican colleagues would want to defend the status quo."
McConnell, calling the amendment "incredibly bad," scoffed at Reid for pulling up a quote that is "a quarter of a century old."
"Everyone on this Committee knows this proposal will never pass Congress," he said. "This is a political exercise, and everybody knows it. But the political nature of this exercise should not obscure how shockingly bad this proposal is."
The amendment, authored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would allow Congress and states to make laws that would regulate a candidate's personal expenditures or independent expenditures by others that aren't political committees or parties.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, drew laughter from the packed chamber when he posited that the amendment would allow Congress to "muzzle" groups from the Sierra Club to the National Right to Life.
"Congress could say you the citizens are no longer citizens, you're subjects," he said.
But Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., charged McConnell and Cruz of replacing "logic with hyperbole."
"Sen. Cruz fancies himself a constitutional expert, but he knows that no amendment is absolute," Schumer said, asking if Cruz was really against "balancing tests" that prohibited child pornography or shouting "fire" in a crowded theater.
"Sen. McConnell would not have flipped his position if the majority of money was from Democrats, not Republicans," Schumer said.
Text of the amendment, S.J. Res. 166:
Section 1. The Congress may enact laws regulating the amounts of expenditures a candidate may make from his personal funds or the personal funds of his immediate family or may incur with personal loans, and Congress may enact laws regulating the amounts of independent expenditures by any person, other than by a political committee of a political party, which can be made to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for Federal office.
Section 2. The several States may enact laws regulating the amounts of expenditures of a candidate may make from his personal funds or the personal funds of his immediate family or may incur with personal loans, and such States may enact laws regulating the amounts of independent expenditures by any person, other than by a political committee of a political party, which can be made to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for State and local offices.