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Campaign Money Debate Won't Help Hill's Reputation

Senate Democrats, such as (from left) Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse, are messaging on the Constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s nothing more than another Senate floor sideshow this week, a stage-managed debate in slow motion where the ultimate outcome is such a decisive and foreordained defeat that almost no one is paying attention.  

Paying short shrift to the campaign finance constitutional amendment may be understandable, especially in light of the two imminently consequential matters lawmakers must tackle before decamping to campaign: Voting to keep the government open beyond the election and deciding how to take a stand on the coming military intervention in Syria .  

But passively perpetuating the enormous role of money in politics for another year, and with nothing more than a passionless “messaging vote,” is worrisome for a couple of reasons for anyone concerned about the badly frayed institutional reputation of Congress.  

For one thing, such cavalier handling of a possible change to the Constitution can only intensify the perception that lawmakers rarely place seriousness of purpose ahead of politics.  

The public had come to expect the legislative decks will be cleared for the rare deliberations of constitutional amendments, which is what happened when three such matters have come before the Senate in the past decade. (Republican proposals mandating balanced federal budgets, permitting laws against flag desecration and banning gay marriage all came up far short of the two-thirds majorities required.) But this time the Democrats are willing to let their bold idea for reconfiguring the Bill of Rights fade away with a routine walk-off-the-floor roll call . (Wednesday’s procedural voice vote set the stage for the disposative  party-line tally Thursday afternoon.)  

For another thing, such a quick sidestepping of the issue will make it even more difficult next time to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to congressional collaboration.  

The growing consensus, at least from the outside, is that the torrent of cash coursing into House and Senate campaigns is a main reason the Capitol has become such a dysfunctional mess — and there is no reversal in sight. Other really big institutionalized contributions to the problem include the partisan nature of redistricting and the polarizing of debate on television and online. So a good answer to the question, “What’s poisoning Congress?” starts with the simple mnemonic of the three Ms: money, maps and media. There’s nothing lawmakers can do to regulate discourse on cable news or Twitter, of course. And they’ll likely have to wait a long while before many more states follow the leads of Iowa and California in bleeding some of the partisanship and incumbency protection out of House district map making.  

But the matter of regulating money in politics has always fallen squarely in the lap of Congress. It’s there all the more emphatically now, because the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has made clear it views many of the campaign finance limitations in place since Watergate as violating freedom of speech.  

What to do next is one of the most vexing public policy dilemmas of our time. How it’s solved could have a profound effect on many bedrock institutions of democracy — starting with the legislative branch itself. A strong argument can be made that, whatever side they’re on, all lawmakers who intend to stick around for more than another term have an interest in confronting head-on such an important challenge to the reputation of their workplace.  

Laboring to write new regulations for campaign donations that might withstand the new level of constitutional scrutiny would probably take years, plus an enormous amount of the sort of bipartisan compromise that’s so elusive these days. And such a law still might prove unsuccessful if it ends up being vetted by a Supreme Court as conservative as the current one. All the while, the billionaires, corporations, super PACs and special interests on the left and right — from the Koch brothers and Lockheed Martin to Priorities USA and the League of Conservation Voters — could be counted on to keep spending evermore generously to maintain and grow their blocs of lockstep backers on the Hill.  

But that’s among just three alternatives. Doing nothing is the preferred approach for those lawmakers who genuinely believe the unfettered flow of money should be the essential fuel for the country’s robust exchanges of political expression. That’s the current public position of virtually every Republican.  

(They also are confident, although they don’t often boast about it, that most of the spending is going to be to promote their ideas.)  

The other option is what the Senate is nominally debating this week: Adding language to the Constitution that would create the first-ever carve-out from the protections of the First Amendment, by explicitly permitting federal and state legislation to regulate political giving and spending. It’s got the backing of almost all the Democrats, who say such a unique tinkering with the Bill of Rights is the only way to ensure democracy does not become the exclusive province of the wealthy and the powerful.  

(They also are worried, though they rarely concede as much, that the GOP is correct in believing it’s going to win the political money arms race.)  

Casual observers of Congress may have thought they’d witnessed a breakthrough on Monday, when 25 Republicans joined the Democrats to steer the constitutional amendment past the most preliminary filibuster hurdle. But perish any naïve hope for a bipartisan breakthrough. All the GOP votes were cast by senators who oppose the proposal and will vote to bury it in the end. But they were happy to start the debate and keep it going for several days — because that means delayed action on other “messaging vote” proposals (minimum wage and pay equity among them) that Democrats want to put before the Senate in advance of the election.  

Cynical behavior, in other words, remains one of the rare congressional practices that has broad bipartisan appeal.  

   

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