Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ron Fein: Kansas campaign ads reflect need for reform

It’s political campaign season again, and, as always, TV ads are all over the airwaves. But something’s different this time.

Four years ago, when Sam Brownback ran for governor against Tom Holland, the total amount spent on ads in the race was $713,000. Total spending is almost 10 times higher this year. And unlike in 2010, more than half comes from mysterious outside groups that don’t disclose their funders.

In fact, the Sunflower State now leads the nation in the dubious category of “highest percentage of TV ads paid for by secretive outside money.”

Kansans were warned this could happen. Late in his career, former Sen. Bob Dole recognized the importance of limiting corporate, union and foreign money in our elections. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Kansas warned about “the pernicious and corrupting effects on American democracy if the court were to overturn existing federal and state limits on corporate expenditures in candidate elections.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court did exactly that.

Americans of good faith – Democrats and Republicans – are trying to fix this system. We’ve experimented at the federal, state and local levels with various systems for reining in the big money and restoring the idea that every American’s voice and vote should count equally. Some laws have worked well; others have needed improvement. The best approach might be to let cities and states experiment and see what works best.

But the Supreme Court has made that almost impossible, in a series of decisions that have crippled the public’s ability to control the influence of money in our politics. In 1976, the Supreme Court committed its original sin by saying that political dollars count as “speech” under the First Amendment. That was bad enough. Then in 2010, the Citizens United decision held that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money in federal elections. And this year, the McCutcheon decision said that ultrarich donors have a constitutional right to give up to $3.5 million to federal politicians.

When our founders wrote the First Amendment, they didn’t intend freedom of speech to mean that the wealthy should be able to buy our elections, or our officials. The only way to correct the Supreme Court and re-establish the original meaning of the Constitution is through a constitutional amendment.

On Sept. 11 a solid majority of the U.S. Senate voted for an amendment that would restore the First Amendment by allowing Congress and state and local governments to “set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.” Now, a “dark money” outside group is trying to politicize the amendment with a new ad in the Kansas U.S. Senate race, saying it will gut the First Amendment.

That’s absurd.

The amendment is about money, not speech. It affirms our right to free speech by making sure that the voices of everyday Americans can be heard over the roar of massive special interest political spending. A vast majority of Americans of both parties agree. More than 100 Republican elected officials are on record in support of an amendment.

The bill didn’t pass this time, but Americans are wising up to the system, and the amendment bill will be back before Congress again soon. When it returns, Kansas’ senators and representatives should take to heart the growing consensus that our system is rigged in favor of those who can pay to play.

Ron Fein is the legal director of Free Speech for People, based in Washington, D.C.