In the age of eight-figure checks to super PACs, is it time for a constitutional amendment that could end this dangerous farce? The notion of fiddling with the First Amendment should make anyone nervous — especially anyone who has spent a career benefiting from it. Then again, so should Sheldon Adelson’s $10 million check to Mitt Romney’s super PAC. A system that lets one individual pump so much money into supporting a favored candidate threatens to substitute oligarchy for democracy. Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe has long opposed such tinkering. But writing last week for Slate, Tribe proposed an amendment, since introduced by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), that would allow “content-neutral limitations” on independent expenditures. Tribe told me he changed his mind because “there’s no serious prospect” that a majority of the Supreme Court “will see the light in our lifetimes.” Meanwhile, he said, the “distortive effects of Citizens United and its aftermath are becoming clearer every week.”
For all of the lamenting over the 2010 ruling in Citizens United, the trouble began far earlier, in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo. Citizens United and a later appeals court ruling simply made clear that the Adelsons of the world could band together — hence, the super PAC — to spend unlimited funds to elect favored candidates. Buckley erected a distinction between limits on campaign contributions (okay, to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption) and limits on campaign expenditures (invalid, because they restrict political speech without, the court said, furthering the anti-corruption interest).