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Congress has returned to Washington after five weeks of vacation to squander their few fall “work” days with political posturing and a “must-pass” bill that will fund the U.S. government only through mid-December.

Lawmakers running in the Nov. 4 elections are anxious to get back to full-time campaigning, which necessarily means full-time fundraising. Fundraising has become the dominant U.S. political activity as the U.S. Supreme Court in multiple decisions has declared that money is free speech under the First Amendment.

As a result, Montana has seen its longstanding state campaign finance laws struck down. A century-old ban on corporate political contributions enacted by Montana voters was ruled unconstitutional. Limits on individual contributions have been eliminated by a U.S. District judge pending appeal at the 9th Circuit. All the while, groups that are fighting spending limits are fighting public disclosure laws.

Dark money in Montana

Thus, dark money has become a significant factor in Montana and U.S. elections. Legislation aimed at shedding more public light on campaign finance failed in the 2013 Montana Legislature despite the bipartisan efforts of state Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

There are two ways to overcome the “money is free speech” rulings. One is for a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule or alter its stand in future cases. That will require the appointment of justices who don’t see a constitutional imperative for unlimited spending. The other way is amending the U.S. Constitution. An amendment requires that two-thirds of both the House and Senate vote to send the proposal to the states and that three-fourths of the states approve it. Amending the U.S. Constitution is difficult.

Amendment doomed

This fall, it is impossible. The GOP leadership in the House supports the campaign spending free for all. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid still brought the proposed amendment up for a procedural vote on Monday, and 79 senators — Democrats and Republicans — voted to start debate. The 18 no votes were Republicans. The Senate effort is doomed to fail in the last days of this lame-duck Congress, and Reid could have used the time for consideration of delayed appointments, tax provisions that are expiring and a budget for the year starting Oct. 1.

However, American citizens deserve to know how much money is flooding their election process. The only way to change it is to elect lawmakers to the state and federal level that support openness and a more level playing field for citizens who don’t have the money to give thousands or millions to campaigns.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., made a bipartisan case for the amendment in an op-ed published Monday by The Hill.

“The original and honest intent of our campaign finance laws is to rein in the culture of money in politics and ensure that a few donors can’t buy an election by spending to benefit one candidate over another,” Simpson and Udall wrote. “They are rooted in the public’s disgust with political corruption. Yet the court’s rulings indicate we are headed back to that pre-Watergate era of corruption.”

The column notes that in 1978, the year Simpson was first elected, outside groups spent $303,000 on U.S. congressional campaigns, according to a study by Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. In 2012, the same study found, spending by outside political groups had grown to $457 million in House and Senate races.

Not only must members of Congress raise funds constantly; they can’t always vote for their constituents because they can’t alienate the big funders and fundraisers.

The nation needs to move away from this culture of money driving the election process. Citizens can make a start by voting in the November elections.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.