02/09/2015 05:20 EST | Updated 04/11/2015 05:59 EDT

Obama: Time for a constitutional amendment to fight money in U.S. politics

WASHINGTON - With money pouring into American political campaigns at a torrential pace, President Barack Obama has begun promoting the idea of amending the U.S. Constitution to slow the flow.

The former constitutional-law-professor-turned-commander-in-chief has become an increasingly vocal advocate for a constitutionally mandated curb on campaign donations.

Its basic aim would be to scrap a landmark Supreme Court decision in the 2010 Citizens United case. The court triggered a gusher of spending by companies, unions and other organizations by declaring that organizations have free-speech rights.

The subsequent election saw US$6.3 billion spent on presidential and congressional races in 2012, according to the group the Center for Responsive Politics — more than double what was spent in the U.S. in 2000.

The difference with Canada is striking. Political spending in Canada is measured in millions, not billions. Corporate and union donations are illegal at the federal level. Third-party groups are limited to spending $150,000 in an election, and individuals can't donate more than $1,500 per year.

"I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it," Obama said in an interview with the Vox site, released Monday.

He's floated the idea before. A book on the influx of cash in political campaigns, "Big Money," says Obama told a private gathering of wealthy donors, including Bill Gates, that this would require a multi-year effort.

"I taught constitutional law," the book quotes Obama telling that audience after the 2012 election. "I don't tinker with the Constitution lightly. But I think this is important enough."

Obama is quoted saying that because he's run his last campaign, he's free to use his so-called bully pulpit to argue for this cause. It appears he's doing it, first with comments in a 2012 social-media interview on Reddit and even more adamantly now with Vox.

Given his former career, he's surely aware of the obstacles on the path he's proposing. A constitutional amendment might be even harder to achieve in the U.S. now than in Canada, as it requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of a polarized U.S. Congress, followed by ratification in three-quarters of the state legislatures.

The last such amendment set a mandatory delay for lawmakers' raises to kick in, until after elections. The 27th Amendment finally passed in 1992 — a full 202 years after it was first proposed.

But the sponsor of a campaign-finance amendment argued Monday that it's urgent.

Sen. Bernie Sanders said the U.S. is starting to resemble an oligarchy more than a democracy. He used a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to argue that American politics responds not to the people — but only to the hyper-rich.

Sanders said there's no reason that a bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline should have been the No. 1 priority of the new Republican-controlled Senate — if not for the fact that the same Koch brothers who own so many oilsands leases in Alberta donate heavily to political campaigns.

The Koch brothers' network has announced plans to spend $889 million in the 2016 election.

A research project last year gave ammunition to critics like Sanders, who say money has infected the American experiment in governance of, by and for the people.

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern concluded that public opinion is almost irrelevant to modern American lawmaking. They found that a bill stands almost no chance of becoming law without the support of the 10 per cent of wealthiest Americans — no matter how wildly popular it might be with everyone else.

"Maybe the game is over. Maybe they've bought the United States government. Maybe there is no turning back," Sanders, an Independent, told the Brookings Institution on Monday.

"I surely hope not."

Before the midterm elections, Sanders introduced a constitutional amendment that would prohibit corporate donations to campaigns. It received a majority of votes in the Senate, but none from Republicans and fell short of the two-thirds threshold.

Opponents of Sanders' effort called it an attempt to curb free speech. A common argument against spending limits is that they would limit the spread of new, perhaps unpopular, ideas.

Reform advocates have also expressed frustration with Obama.

The book, "Big Money," quotes one named Cynthia Canary who has known Obama for years and calls his presidency "extraordinarily disappointing," because of the lack of effort he's put into the issue so far.

In his first presidential run, Obama opted out of the public financing plan for his campaign. It would have meant agreeing to a spending limit, and he was raising more money than his rival, John McCain.

Obama now laments that the new reality forces politicians to spend so much time fundraising. He should know — he attended at least 65 fundraisers last year.