A Campaign Finance Reform Agenda for 2013
Statement by Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer
The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has had a disastrous impact on our political system.
As a result of the decision, Super PACs and 501(c) nonprofit groups spent $1 billion in unlimited contributions from millionaires, billionaires, corporations, labor unions and other special interest groups to influence the 2012 federal elections. As much as $400 million of this total came in the form of secret donations.
Unlimited contributions and secret money corrupt the political system in two ways.
First, massive amounts of unlimited contributions and secret money provide the opportunity for donors to buy corrupting influence over government decisions on taxes, spending, regulation, health care policy and countless other issues. This corrupting influence invariably comes at the expense of the American people.
Second, massive amounts of unlimited and secret contributions from very wealthy individuals and special interest groups can exercise disproportionate influence on the outcome of our elections. This fundamentally undermines the democratic principle of one person, one vote.
Notwithstanding these dangerous problems for our democracy, as long as the Citizens United decision stands we cannot restrict spending of unlimited contributions by independent groups.
But there are bills pending in Congress that can provide essential progress in dealing with the post-Citizens United campaign finance system.
The Empowering Citizens Act is comprehensive legislation to greatly magnify the role and importance in federal elections of citizens making small contributions and to ensure that outside spending groups do not coordinate their activities with federal candidates.
The DISCLOSE Act is legislation to close the gaping contribution disclosure loopholes created by a combination of the Citizens United decision and flawed FEC regulations.
These bills will be the subject of major national lobbying efforts beginning in 2013.
Empowering Citizens ActRepresentatives David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced H.R. 6448, the Empowering Citizens Act in September, 2012. The Act incorporates a number of the recommendations included in a 30-page report and proposal issued in August 2012 by Democracy 21 and the Brennan Center for Justice entitled, “Empowering Small Donors in Federal Elections.”
The Act would:
- Make small contributions much more valuable and important to federal candidates by matching individual donations up to $250 per donor with public funds at a 5 to 1 ratio. Participating candidates would not have to agree to overall spending limits, because of the role being played by outside spending groups, but would have to agree to cut in half the maximum individual contribution they can accept from $2,500 to $1,250 per election;
- End candidate-specific Super PACs like Priorities USA, devoted to supporting President Obama, and Restore Our Future, devoted to supporting Mitt Romney, that are vehicles for circumventing candidate contribution limits – by defining such PACs to be coordinated arms of the candidates’ campaigns, and therefore subject to the limits on contributions to the candidates they support;
- Strengthen the current ineffectual rules that prohibit other Super PACs and outside spending groups from coordinating their activities with candidates;
- Prohibit federal officeholders and candidates from raising any funds for Super PACs;
- Strengthen the ability of parties to help their candidates respond to outside spending groups.
National polls make clear that the American people overwhelmingly object to the campaign finance system created by the Supreme Court.
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, “Nearly seven in 10 registered voters would like super PACs to be illegal.”
A Survey USA poll found that more than 75 percent of voters “view corporate election spending as an attempt to bribe politicians rather than as free speech protected by the First Amendment.”
According to an Associated Press poll, “More than 8 in 10 Americans support limits on the amount of money given to groups that are trying to influence U.S. elections.”
By greatly increasing the role and importance of small contributions in financing federal elections, the Act would dilute the importance of influence-seeking money in federal elections and reduce the opportunities for government corruption.
The Act would also provide candidates with an alternative way to finance competitive campaigns without having to sell their souls to their funders.
The DISCLOSE Act
The DISCLOSE Act provides the most immediate opportunity for congressional action in the next Congress. If it had been in effect during the 2012 national elections, the Act would have resulted in disclosure of the donors who funded some $400 million in secret contributions spent to influence the elections.
In 2010, the DISCLOSE Act passed the House and received 59 votes in the Senate, one vote short of breaking a filibuster and being enacted. The legislation received no votes from Republican Senators.
For more than three decades, Republican and Democratic officeholders alike held a consensus view that citizens have a basic right to know who is giving and spending money to influence their votes. This bipartisan consensus in Congress ended following theCitizens United decision.
For example, Congress passed legislation in 2000 to require disclosure by section 527 political organizations. 48 Republican Senators and 44 Democratic Senators voted for this disclosure legislation.
Ten years later in 2010, no Republican Senator voted for the disclosure legislation that was made necessary by the Citizens United decision.
In 2012, the DISCLOSE Act, sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) received 53 votes in the Senate but again fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Again, no Republican Senator voted for the legislation. No vote took place in the House.
In the country, however, unlike in Congress, there is no partisan divide over campaign finance disclosure. A poll taken this year by the Clarus Research Group found that 88 percent of respondents believe that all political campaign contributions and expenditures should be publicly disclosed.
The Supreme Court has consistently supported campaign finance disclosure laws for more than three decades.
In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 vote, upheld the constitutionality of campaign finance disclosure requirements for outside spending groups. The Court said that disclosure serves governmental interests in “providing the electorate with information” about the sources of money spent to influence elections so that voters can “make informed choices in the political marketplace.”
The Court, however, wrongly assumed that existing laws would provide the kind of disclosure it endorsed. In fact, the existing laws requiring outside groups to disclose their donors had been gutted by FEC regulations.
A major effort will continue in 2013 to enact the DISCLOSE Act with an emphasis on rebuilding bipartisan support in Congress for the disclosure legislation.
Dramatically increasing the role and importance of small donors in federal elections and thereby reducing the role and importance of influence-seeking contributions will help to restore the integrity of our democracy and the health of our representative system of government. It will also help to restore citizens to their rightful preeminent place in our democracy.
 “Poll: Voters Want Super PACs to be Illegal,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2012, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/poll-voters-want-super-pacs-to-be-illegal/2012/03/12/gIQA6skT8R_blog.html>
 “Voter Roll Call Survey #16931,” Survey USA, August 9, 2010, <http://www.voterrollcall.com/client/PollReport.aspx?g=ce694372-aa8e-48c2-83c1-e093151c0906>
 “Poll: Strong Support for Campaign Spending Limits,” Associated Press, September 15, 2012, <http://news.yahoo.com/poll-strong-support-campaign-spending-limits-120557612–election.html>
 “U.S. Voters: Congress is Selfish about Campaign Finance,” The Atlantic. July 16, 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/us-voters-congress-is-selfish-about-campaign-finance/259812/>