The largest hearing room the Senate has in the Hart Building was standing-room only on Tuesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee held its hearing on the resolution proposed by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) that would amend the First Amendment and give Congress unlimited, plenary power to restrict political speech and political activity.
In a historic and unprecedented event, both majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared as the first two witnesses. They had starkly different presentations, with Reid complaining about so-called “dark money” and corporations and special interests “meddling” in congressional races. He clearly doesn’t like the fact that Americans have the ability to criticize him and his policies.
McConnell went back to first principles, talking about the First Amendment and the fundamental importance of protecting political speech, as did Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer who won the historic New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case. As Abrams said, the purpose of this proposed amendment is clearly “limiting speech intended to affect elections.” He observed that the title of the amendment, “Restore Democracy to the American People,” is based on the false notion that our democracy has already been lost. According to Abrams, “the notion that democracy would be advanced – saved, ‘restored’ – by limiting speech is nothing but a perversion of the English language.”
The Democratic witnesses in favor of the amendment seemed obsessed with the Koch brothers, including a state senator from North Carolina who made bizarre claims about supposed Koch-financed efforts to implement a voter ID law to “suppress” the votes of racial minorities.
It was almost funny – Democrats can’t even hold a hearing about the First Amendment without working in their talking points about voter ID and “vote suppression.” All of the Republican senators who spoke, including Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), made stirring statement about the importance of preserving the Bill of Rights. I won’t summarize their statements but they are worth watching (here and here).
What was most interesting was something that happened before the hearing started that shows just how dangerous it would be to give Congress the power Udall, Reid and 39 other Democratic senators are seeking (there are 41 cosponsors of this resolution) and how they don’t believe the rules should apply to them. I was standing in line outside the hearing room waiting to get in and get a seat. There was a sign prominently taped to the wall where we were all standing that warned attendees of all of the things not allowed in the hearing room, like standing, shouting, applauding, and most importantly, “no signs.”