Campaign Finance

  • March 16, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared on Demos' PolicyShop

    by Adam Lioz, Counsel and Senior Advisor, Policy & Outreach, Demos

    Hearings on Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch are less than a week away—and whomever is confirmed to the lifetime appointment will have a decisive vote on whose voices carry weight in our democracy. 

    In a new report released today, Court Cash: 2016 Election Money Resulting Directly from Supreme Court Rulings, Demos demonstrates exactly what is at stake by quantifying—for the first time—the direct impact of four of the Supreme Court’s most significant money in politics cases on 2016 election spending.

    The Supreme Court’s rulings in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC (1996) and Citizens United v. FEC (2010) led to more than $3 billion in spending on the 2016 elections, which is equivalent to 45 percent of the total cost of the elections.

  • March 1, 2017

    by Katie O’Connor

    In an era of record political polarization, there are still a handful of issues on which Americans seem to agree. One such issue is the need to implement serious campaign finance reform and drastically reduce the amount of money in politics. According to a 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll, 84 percent of respondents thought that money has too much influence in American political campaigns. 39 percent of respondents said the system for funding political campaigns needs fundamental changes, and another 46 percent said the system needs to be completely rebuilt. Over three-quarters of respondents were in favor of limiting the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns.

    Despite a near consensus on the need for change, little has been done to slow the flood of money into politics in recent years. In fact, it has only hastened, with some help from the Supreme Court. The 2016 presidential election is estimated to have cost $6.9 billion, up from $4.3 billion in 2000. Part of the blame for the impasse lies with Congress, which has been growing increasingly gridlocked for decades. But Congressional deadlock is not a total bar to campaign finance reform.

    The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the agency whose mission is to enforce and administer campaign finance laws. Specifically, the FEC enforces laws which seek to “limit the disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and special interest groups on the outcome of federal elections; regulate spending in campaigns for federal office; and deter abuses by mandating public disclosure of campaign finances.” Despite its bipartisan and overwhelmingly popular mission and its distance from a dysfunctional Congress, the FEC is not immune to gridlock. In fact, it has come to be referred to, in some circles, as the Failure to Enforce Commission.

  • October 6, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Ron Fein, Legal Director at Free Speech For People

    Why do we want to limit the influence of money in politics and what do we tell the courts? For 40 years, since the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the legal arguments for limiting big money in politics have been compelled to focus on “corruption” as the only reason.

    Not anymore. On Wednesday, Free Speech For People (along with partners Indian Law Resource Center, American Independent Business Alliance, American Sustainable Business Council and retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson) filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of the state of Montana’s campaign contribution limits against a challenge led by noted campaign finance reform opponent James Bopp. The amicus brief advances a political equality argument. The district court had chastised Montana’s voters, who passed the contribution limits by a 1994 ballot initiative, for trying to achieve political equality.

    As background, the Supreme Court’s campaign finance precedent has long insisted that limits on political contributions must be grounded in concern about “corruption” and its appearance. In years past, justices with a pragmatic sense of political reality understood “corruption” to include broader concerns of influence and access; more recently, the Roberts Court constrained it to just mean “quid pro quo” corruption, not much more than bribery. And certainly corruption is one legitimate concern.

    But that is not the only, or perhaps even the main, reason that Americans want to limit the influence of big money. A more fundamental principle is political equality. This concept has been part of our constitutional history since before we had a Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” not equal in assets or abilities but in their unalienable right “to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. And when the Constitution was submitted for ratification by the states, James Madison assured hesitant readers, worried that Congress would be dominated by the wealthy, thus: “Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune.”

  • August 11, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Michael Vargas, Associate at Rimon

    In his Citizens United v. FEC dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas sent up a signal flare that could have far greater repercussions than the landmark decision itself. In his dissent, Justice Thomas argued that disclosure requirements on corporations were unconstitutional compelled speech because they opened up corporations to public reprisal for the information found in those disclosures, and he steadfastly rejected the argument that these disclosure requirements could be justified on the grounds that they simply “provided voters with additional information.” This startling pronouncement, if applied to all corporate “speech,” would effectively nullify all corporate disclosure laws currently on the books, including most if not all Wall Street regulations. This fear was largely an academic one, until the D.C. Circuit ruled, in National Association of Manufacturers v. SEC, that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules on Conflict Minerals were unconstitutional in an opinion that sounds remarkably similar to Justice Thomas’ Citizens United dissent. There can be no doubt that all federal regulation that uses disclosure as a means of oversight is now in very real peril from conservative judges who adhere to Thomas’ beliefs.

    The Battle to Prohibit Conflict Minerals

    For the people of Zaire, 1996 brought with it the end of the repressive and corrupt dictatorship of Joseph Mabutu, and the beginning of a series of civil wars that continue to rage today. The country, renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1997, is a humanitarian nightmare, as warlords and mercenaries use rape and murder to enslave the population and put them to work in mines extracting minerals such as gold, tin, tungsten and tantalite (3TG). These 3TG minerals, used to manufacture many high-tech devices such as cellphones and computers, are then sold in western markets with the proceeds used to finance the civil war in the DRC. International human rights organizations and even the United Nations have long identified these “conflict minerals” as one of the most important humanitarian crises in the world today.

  • June 2, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Sen. Whitehouse is a member of the Judiciary Committee as well as the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Budget Committee, Environment and Public Works Committee, and Special Committee on Aging.

    The recent op-ed by two Republican members of the House of Representatives argues that their efforts to impeach the IRS Commissioner are on the level. Maybe.

    But when you look at how the Republican Party is paid for, Republicans have a very good reason for trying to keep their boot firmly on the neck of the IRS. Keeping an already timid bureaucracy even more intimidated has a significant strategic benefit.

    There is a dirty secret to the "dark money" organizations that plague our elections: They're not supposed to be in our elections. And if the IRS were doing its job, they wouldn't be.

    If we were rid of dark money, it would make the American people happier, as we are fully creeped out by the seemingly unlimited influence-buying in politics. But big special interests which make a killing off their political "investments" would not be happy at all. They might have to act out in the daylight where we can watch them; and they much prefer the dark to do their dirty work of killing climate change and campaign finance legislation, preventing Medicare from negotiating drug prices, and unleashing Wall Street from regulation.

    They also prefer the Republican Party, so protecting dark money gets the full attention of Party leaders in Congress. For them, political dark money has become as important as an air hose to a deep sea diver.