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Against 'Dark Money,' A Star Witness Speaks In Congress


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens testified in a Senate hearing today on the surge of secret money in politics. Stevens retired from the court a few months after the Citizens United ruling in 2010. He had issued an emphatic dissent in the case, which allowed corporations and unions to spend without limits in campaigns.

Well, now John Paul Stevens is calling for a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court's equating of political money with free speech. NPR's Peter Overby has the story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Stevens noted that he last appeared before a congressional committee in 1975. It was his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court. That noted, he got to the point of this appearance.

JOHN PAUL STEVENS: Money is not speech.

OVERBY: This was the fundamental issue today. Democrats say the Supreme Court made a big mistake in 1976 when it ruled that political spending is free speech. Stevens agreed.

STEVENS: Campaign funds were used to finance the Watergate burglaries, actions that clearly were not protected by the First Amendment.

OVERBY: Also agreeing, three of the five other witnesses. They testified after Stevens. Political scientist Norm Ornstein is an outspoken critic of the massive surge in spending by so-called social welfare organizations that don't disclose their donors.

NORM ORNSTEIN: I'm still looking for the word money in the First Amendment.

OVERBY: Senator Angus King chaired the hearing. He's an independent from Maine where he said voters take a dim view of secrecy in politics.

SENATOR ANGUS KING: In Maine, we have town meetings every spring. Nobody's allowed to go to a Maine town meeting with a bag over their head.

OVERBY: King pointed to new studies by the Wesleyan Media Project and Center for Responsive Politics. They found that in spending to date, non-disclosing groups are nearly three times ahead of where they were in 2012. They account for two-thirds of spending by GOP groups and nearly half of Democratic spending in Senate races.

But Republican Senators at the hearing maintain that the secrecy protects donors from retaliation and the First Amendment protection for their money is absolute. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said politicians shouldn't try to stifle the social welfare organizations, which he called citizens' groups.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Well, that is the nature of our democratic process, that if you choose to run for public office, there are 300 million Americans who have a right to criticize you all day long and twice on Sundays.

OVERBY: Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, the top Republican on the rules committee, says advocates of regulating political money were to blame for the surge.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: Stop this fool's errand of speech regulation.

OVERBY: He said nobody should be afraid of the anonymous donors in a free marketplace of ideas.

ROBERTS: The exercise of those rights does not threaten our democracy.

OVERBY: But rules committee chairman Charles Schumer of New York said the First Amendment does have limits.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: Most everyone here believes you can't falsely scream fire in a crowded theater.

OVERBY: Schumer said Democrats expect to bring up a constitutional amendment to break the tie between money and speech. But a constitutional amendment needs a two-thirds vote in each chamber and ratification by three-quarters of the states. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.