Somewhere in the great beyond where presidents go after death, John Adams has a big smile on his face. He hated what Thomas Jefferson's supporters were saying about the Federalist Party that Adams championed and that controlled Congress. So the nation’s second president persuaded Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. Several newspaper editors and writers, as well as a congressman, were then prosecuted for criticizing government. The acts were instantly unpopular, however, and helped elect Jefferson as president in 1800. The acts expired and passed into well-earned historical disrepute.
But now Adams is grinning and exclaiming “I told you so” because he read Senate Joint Resolution 19, a constitutional amendment proposed by 15 Senate Democrats. These Democrats want to negate that part of the First Amendment that says “Congress shall make no law respecting ... freedom of speech” and replace it with this:
|Partisanship is indeed a powerful force in Washington, but it pales by comparison to the power of incumbency.|
“Congress shall have power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respect to federal elections ...” including setting limits on how much an individual can give to a candidate and how much may be spent by, in support of or in opposition to a candidate.
In other words, because campaign contributions are a fundamental form of political speech, these Democrats want to give themselves and their incumbent colleagues from both major political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives the power to control political speech in America. Partisanship is indeed a powerful force in Washington, but it pales by comparison to the power of incumbency. That is why special interests give most of their campaign contributions to incumbents instead of challengers. Remember, too, it's incumbents that have recently driven public approval of Congress down to historic lows.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, “the First Amendment is purposefully neutral when it comes to speech. It respects the right of every person to be heard without fear or favor, whether or not their views happen to be popular with the government at a given moment ... 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. If incumbent politicians were in charge of political speech, a majority could design the rules to benefit itself and diminish its opponents.”
Similar amendment proposals were introduced in Congress in 1997 and 2001, and both were defeated on bipartisan votes. McConnell is confident the present proposal will meet a similar fate because its Democratic backers only want to use it “to stir up” their political base “by complaining loudly about certain Americans exercising their free speech and associational rights, while being perfectly happy that other Americans -- those who agree with the sponsors of this amendment -- are doing the same thing.” Maybe so, but transparent hypocrisy hasn't always stopped either Congress or presidents from acting foolishly.