Asserting that money's "corrupting" influence on elections is a serious threat to democracy, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said Monday he has proposed a constitutional amendment to achieve meaningful campaign finance reform.
"As the cost of running for office has spiraled out of control, the public's confidence in our democracy has steadily decreased," the second-term congressman said.
To restore that faith, he said, a constitutional structure must be established that "limits the influence of special-interest dollars and reduces the amount of time elected officials focus on fundraising instead of their public responsibilities."
His proposal would overcome a 1976 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court equated money with free speech, giving First Amendment protection to "contributions" and "expenditures" associated with campaigns.
The decision in Buckley v. Valeo limits Congress' ability to change the current system of campaign financing. Yet the Supreme Court also held that Congress could step in wherever the influence of money significantly threatened the "integrity of our system of representative democracy," Higgins said.
"These findings directly contradict one another," he said. "If money is equal to free speech, then money ultimately governs the outcome of elections. I can't think of a bigger threat to our democracy."
Unlike the McCain-Feingold reforms, which amount to "a lot of dancing around the margins," Higgins said, his resolution is "a very aggressive initiative" that would level the playing field for candidates of limited means. In addition to restoring Congress' power to regulate finances in federal elections, the measure would extend controls to state and local elections, ballot initiatives and referendums.
Amending the Constitution is not easy. Higgins's proposal would need to be approved by two-thirds of quorums of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and then ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Since the first 10 amendments -- the Bill of Rights -- were adopted between 1789 and 1791, only 17 more have been added. The 27th Amendment, governing congressional pay raises, was ratified 1992, more than two centuries after it was proposed.