If two dozen billionaires were using their wealth to effectively buy the 2012 election, it would be time for patriots to mount a bold response on behalf of democracy itself.

Well, that time has come.

US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, revealed for the first time in Senate testimony Tuesday that at least twenty-three billionaire families have contributed a minimum of $250,000 each so far in this year’s campaigns.

“My guess is that number is really much greater because many of these contributions are made in secret. In other words, not content to own our economy, the 1 percent want to own our government as well,” Sanders told the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

The subcommittee’s “Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs” hearing provided an important point of reflection on the crisis created in the 2012 election cycle by what the progressive reformers of a century ago described broadly—and accurately—as “the money power.” In addition to Sanders, testimony was provided by other backers of amending the Constitution to overturn recent US Supreme Court decisions that have eliminated barriers to the dominance of elections by corporations and the wealthy, including Congresswoman Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, and Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig.

The sense of urgency regarding money in politics was heightened Tuesday as petitions signed by 1,959,063 Americans who want Congress to act to “restore the democratic promise of America” were delivered by a broad consortium of groups that favor a constitutional amendment.

Sanders, who has emerged as an outspoken challenger of “the money power” not just in politics but in public life more generally, was characteristically blunt about the role that campaign spending is playing not just in politics but in the expansion of economic inequality in America—a country where the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

“What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: ‘You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.’

“That is the essence of what Citizens United is all about—and that’s why it must be overturned,” said Sanders, who has proposed a constitutional amendment to restore equal free-speech rights to all citizens.

The senator’s “Saving American Democracy Amendment” (along with a House measure sponsored by Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Florida), would affirm “that for-profit corporations are not people, that they are not entitled to any rights under the Constitution, that they are subject to regulation by state legislatures consistent with free press protections, and that they are prohibited from making contributions or expenditures in political campaigns.”

In addition, the amendment would restore tha authority of the elected representatives of the American people—at the national and state levels—to regulate and limit all political expenditures and contributions.

“I’m proud to say the American people are making their voices heard on this issue—they are telling us loud and clear it is time to reverse the trend,” said Sanders, who noted that Vermont and five other states have adopted resolutions asking Congress for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, as have more than 200 local governments nationwide.

To learn more about grassroots efforts to generate support for amending the Constitution to restore equal free speech for Americans, check out Democracy Is For People, which has been active in organizing in Vermont (where sixty towns backed amendment resolutions) and other states. Or check out the work of Move to Amend and Free Speech for People.

Echoing Sanders’s themes, many of the groups that were involved in the drive to collect the almost 2 million pro-amendment signatures on the petitions delivered Tuesday have adopted a “United for the People” common statement of purpose that sums things up well.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC has focused America’s attention on the dangerous influence of corporate power in our democracy and the urgency of taking all necessary measures to undo that influence, including amending the Constitution,” the statement declares. “Generations of Americans have amended the Constitution over the years to ensure that ‘We the People’ means all the people, not just the privileged few. The Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate spending to influence elections at all levels of government, has brought home the importance of amending the Constitution to ensure that ‘We the People’ does not mean we the corporations. We believe that America works best when our government is of, by and for the people. Although we have differences in scope and tactics, all of us are united in the understanding that the Court’s decision in Citizens United and related cases must be remedied by amending the Constitution in order to restore the democratic promise of America.”