Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidFree speech is a right, not a political weapon Overnight Tech: FCC eyes cybersecurity role | More trouble for spectrum auction | Google seeks 'conservative outreach' director Cures bill clears first Senate hurdle MORE and Republican leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Spending bill will include miners' pension fix Could bipartisanship rise with Trump government? Senate names part of Cures bill after Beau Biden MORE jousted over campaign finance reform during a rare joint appearance Tuesday at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Reid called for the adoption of a constitutional amendment to empower Congress to regulate campaign fundraising without impediment from the courts, a solution McConnell described as “shockingly bad.”
The Senate leaders showed little affection for each other as they sat side by sat at the witness table.
Reid left the hearing room before McConnell began his testimony and McConnell said emphatically that he had “no problem” with Reid’s early departure, eliciting chuckles from audience members who interpreted it as a sign that the GOP leader would not miss his counterpart’s presence.
The panel appearance reflected arguments the two have made on the Senate floor, where the Democratic leader routinely targets Charles and David Koch, two conservative billioniaire activists who have bankrolled spending by political groups.
“I am here because the flood of dark money into our nation’s political system poses the greatest threat to our democracy that I have witnessed during my tenure in public service,” Reid said Tuesday.
McConnell, who testified immediately after Reid, panned the push to amend the Constitution as a transparent effort to rally the Democrats’ liberal base.
“Now, everyone on this committee knows this proposal is never going to pass Congress. This is a political exercise and that’s all it is,” he said. “The political nature of this exercise should not obscure how shockingly bad this proposal is.”
With Election Day fewer than five months away and outside conservative groups poised to spend tens of millions of dollars to elect Republicans, Democrats have zeroed in on reforming campaign finance laws.
Reid blamed the rash of spending by third-party groups on the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
“The decisions by the Supreme Court have left the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires,” he said.
He called for the adoption of the amendment, sponsored by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
“We sit here today faced with a simple choice: We can keep the status quo and argue all day, all night, weekends, forever about whose billionaires are right, or we can work together to change the system, to get this shady money out of our democracy and restore the basic principle of one American, one vote,” Reid said.
Reid’s testimony is part of a broader offensive against the Koch brothers, who plan to spend more than $100 million against Democratic candidates in the midterm election.
Reid noted that in the 2012 presidential campaign, outside groups spent more than $1 billion, estimating it equaled the sum spent by outside groups in the previous 12 elections combined.
He described his reelection race in 2010, in the wake of Citizens United, as “not a lot of fun” and a return to the “sewer” of dirty politics because of the influence of outside groups.
Reid argued that Republicans, including McConnell, previously supported limits on spending by outside groups and should do so again.
He needled McConnell, whom he made sure to call his “friend,” by noting he supported a constitutional amendment in 1988 empowering Congress to regulate independent expenditures.
“Sen. McConnell had the right idea then. I am optimistic that we can find a way to rekindle those noble principles in him now,” he said.
McConnell slammed Democrats on Tuesday for trying to amend the Constitution to protect Senate incumbents from political attack ads.
“The First Amendment is about empowering the people, not the government. The proposed amendment has it exactly backwards. It says that Congress and the states can pass whatever law they want abridging political speech — the speech that is at the very core of the First Amendment,” McConnell said.
He emphasized that former Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), leading Senate liberals of the past, opposed efforts to amend the Constitution to rein in fundraising activities.
“Our colleagues who voted against those proposals were right then. And I respectfully submit that they would be wrong now to support the latest proposal to weaken the First Amendment,” he said.