The Next President: Campaign Finance

Political campaign finance reform is one of the six focus issues that the next chapter is following during the presidential campaign.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the subject of a recent post here, while forbidding curtailment of political messages, left room for disclosure and disclaimer regulations. During every political campaign, voters are inundated with political advertising. The loudest and most persistent messages represent the political prejudices of those who pay for them.

Do you support campaign finance reform?

TNC’s Take: Congress should pursue reforms that would provide timely disclosure information so that voters can know and weigh the source of political campaign messages. Reforms should promote transparency, context, accuracy and accountability in political advertising.

As Thomas Jefferson might have said: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” One legislative initiative to educate voters about political advertising is the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act, H.R. 430). This bill was first introduced in the House by Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) in 2010 (when it died in the Senate) and most recently reintroduced in January 2015.

The DISCLOSE Act (summarized here) would require disclosure of political spending by corporations and outside groups. Van Hollen’s statement explains its purpose:

“I’m pleased today to reintroduce the DISCLOSE Act. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates to secret special interest spending in American elections, and the surge of this money only continues you grow. Congress must restore the integrity of our electoral process – in the face of a secret special interest takeover of our democracy, failure to act is inexcusable.

“The American people deserve a political system that is fair, transparent, and accountable. This legislation would help do that by ensuring that people know who is bankrolling the ads designed to influence their votes. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this legislation – if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from the DISCLOSE Act.”

A similar bill (S. 229) was introduced in the Senate in 2015 by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). At this time, the House and Senate bills are given no chance of being enacted. How do the presidential candidates feel about campaign finance reform?

Bernie Sanders has said: “the current political campaign finance system is corrupt and amounts to legalized bribery.” He supports legislation to provide public funding for elections. He also favors a Constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United, making it clear that “the right to vote and the ability to make campaign contributions and expenditures belong only to real people,” not corporations. He has described the Citizens United decision as “one of the worst decisions ever brought about by the Supreme Court of this country.” Sanders is a co-sponsor of the Senate DISCLOSE Act.

Donald Trump says: “I love the idea of campaign finance reform.” He says that he would support laws to reform the campaign finance system. The Supreme Court has held—because of the absence of coordination between independent expenditures and the candidate’s campaign—that independent expenditures by corporations and PACs do not give rise to corruption. Trump has said, however, that the idea that PACs do not coordinate with campaigns is nonsense: “It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace.” He believes that there should be transparency about the identity of donors.

Like Sanders, Martin O’Malley supports a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. He advocates public financing of congressional elections. He would require companies to disclose political donations through expanded financial disclosure laws. He has proposed an overhaul of the Federal Election Commission to overcome its current partisan gridlock. Beyond campaign finance reform, O’Malley calls for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote and giving the courts the authority to strike down laws that disenfranchise voters. He supports state efforts to establish bipartisan redistricting commissions.

Denying that he was even “testing the waters,” Jeb Bush raised millions of dollars through the Right to Rise PAC, which he formed in January 2015. By denying that he was a candidate, though he was one, Bush avoided campaign finance laws applicable to candidates, including disclosure of donors, the individual contribution limit of $2,700 per election and the prohibition on corporate and labor union contributions. Also, because he was not a candidate, there could be no “coordination” and expenditures by the PAC on his behalf would be considered “independent.” (The Campaign Legal Center published a white paper in February 2015 detailing abuse of the campaign finance laws regarding “testing the waters” activities by 20 of the “prospective” presidential candidates.)

Bush declared his candidacy on June 15, 2015. So far, he has not proposed any reform of campaign finance laws.

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