We need a constitutional amendment on regulating campaigns

After 30 years as a political consultant, after working in the Senate and running a PAC, after working on hundreds of campaigns, I have come to the hard and difficult conclusion that America needs a constitutional amendment to state simply and clearly that nothing in the First Amendment shall preclude our government from regulating campaigns.

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I've written before that we need either a brain transplant on the Supreme Court or an amendment to the constitution, and I was not sure which was the most likely!

Maybe I've been around too long. Every new Supreme Court decision, every new attempt by Congress at campaign finance reform that goes awry, every new cycle where it is increasingly clear that money is driving our elected officials, I am tempted to pull my hair out. (And I don't have much left!)

We have always had problems with money and politics from the founding of the republic but nothing like what we face today.

We have 100 years of court cases upholding the regulating of our campaigns and yet this "Plessy Court" has decided that much of it is out the window.

We have fallen into the abyss — with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the latest case on individual limits, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, we have codified the notion that was viewed as very scary 35 years ago: Freedom to speak is freedom to spend. An individual's right to state his or her views is akin to writing as big a check as one may choose.

That, my friends, is not what our founding fathers had in mind.

The astronomical funds spent have increasingly sent shock waves to our system. This is quickly becoming an earthquake. 

Campaign spending is over the top: billion dollar presidential campaigns; $25 million on a House race in Colorado; the Koch brothers who will spend hundreds of millions this year alone; Sheldon Adelson who wants to buy a presidential candidate.

It is obscene. 

I am not trying to get money out of politics. That will never happen, nor should it.

I am trying to get back to a commonsense standard of how we conduct our elections.

Think about it. How well is our political system working, how successfully are we promoting representative democracy? Just ask many European nations who have a much saner approach to elections.

There is, of course, the question of undue influence on our politicians.

Money is access; money is power; money provides influence.

As former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) once said long ago (I am paraphrasing): "We are the only human beings on the face of the earth who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers and not be affected by it."

Sure, people give money for a whole host of reasons but the largest elephant in the room has "Influence" tattooed across its belly.

Second, the amount of time and effort that candidates and officeholders spend raising money is out of control. This is time they are not doing their jobs, not solving problems, not engaging with their colleagues to come up with ideas that help their country.

The average Senate candidate has to raise over $5,000 a day, 365 days a year, for six years, to win. (The average cost of a winning Senate race in 2012 was $10.5 million; the average cost of a successful House race was $1.7 million.)

The more money that has to be raised by those in office, the less time is spent for the public good.

Third, after Citizens United and McCutcheon we are left with a system in tatters that rewards secret donations, shadow groups and unaccountable big donors. There is little transparency for many of the largest contributors in America.

Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced a constitutional amendment last year that would allow Congress and the states to pass legislation regulating the raising and spending of money on elections.

Even Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor to President Obama, mentioned it on the Sunday shows last weekend and said the president had been thinking along the same lines.

When I started the Center for Responsive Politics in 1983 with Tom Bedell and a distinguished bipartisan board of former senators and congressmen, we never thought it would come to this. When we wrote the first monographs and surveyed former members, the costs of House campaigns were a couple hundred thousand dollars and the Senate around $1 million. We were worried about the trend but thought Congress could deal with the problem. As Ellen Miller and Sheila Krumholz so ably built the center over the past 30 years, it has shined a light on the severity of the problem.

Now, it is up to a public outcry that will lead Congress and the states to put in place an amendment that allows laws to be passed to regulate our campaigns. It is that simple. But it is surely not that easy. I hope I see it in my lifetime, but I am not holding my breath.

Contact Fenn at pfenn@fenn-group.com.