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Answers for Our ‘Byzantine’ Campaign Finance System | Commentary

The word of the day at last week’s Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing, Dollars and Sense: How Undisclosed Money and Post-McCutcheon Campaign Finance Will Affect 2014 and Beyond, was “byzantine.” At least two witnesses and two senators used it in their stated remarks to great effect, as the definition of byzantine is a system that lacks clarity, is outmoded and is excessively complicated.

In the case of this hearing on transparency in money in politics, there couldn’t be a more apt descriptor for our out-of-date, patchwork system of required disclosures of election spending, as recent U.S. Supreme Court cases have riddled the system with even more holes, making it still harder for the public and shareholders to determine the sources of outsized campaign spending by elites and corporations. Some who accuse the system of being excessively complicated argue that the regulations should be loosened. But that is exactly what the Roberts court has forced upon us, and the results are a more complicated system and even less clarity.

This hearing presented us with an all-star line-up of witnesses, from the third-longest serving justice on the Supreme Court — the Honorable John Paul Stevens — to Ann Ravel, who sits on the Federal Election Commission, to Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center and Steven Colbert’s attorney, to Norm Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute and more. They came together to share their thoughts on how best to address the systemic problem of dark money (which has been so exacerbated by our Supreme Court via the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) and to discuss what remedies might be needed.

This hearing — and the solutions suggested in it — is incredibly timely, as just today CQ Weekly reported on the creation of yet another new joint fundraising account to take advantage of the McCutcheon decision. The Republican Victory Fund is one of more than a half dozen similar committees, all featuring multiple players raising big money together, that have sprung up since the decision.

Prior to the McCutcheon decision, an individual could contribute up to a total of $123,200 per election cycle to all federal candidates and committees combined, with sub-limits of $48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all political committees and parties. Following McCutcheon, wealthy donors can contribute up to $5.9 million to federal candidates, parties and committees — a dollar figure limited only by the number of candidates running for office. And thanks to Citizens United, we have had four years of unlimited super PAC and 501(c)(4) spending under our belts, and a new understanding of the havoc undisclosed spending can wreak on the public trust in our system of democracy.

Congress needs to take swift and decisive action to mitigate the damage caused by the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. Citizens across the country, of every political stripe, are infuriated with the unlimited and undisclosed money rapidly drowning out the public voice in elections, and are demanding reasonable limits and full disclosure of money in politics.

Various witnesses and senators today called for a plethora of solutions to bring us closer to those goals, including: 1) legislation introduced by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, that would mandate 48-hour disclosure of significant campaign contributions and expenditures; 2) a ban or restrictions on “joint fundraising committees,” which as evidenced by the Republican Victory Fund, are likely to become the preferred fundraising vehicle for major donors under McCutcheon; 3) a Securities and Exchange Commission rule, in response to the 750,000 investors and members of the public who have called for mandated disclosure of corporate political spending by publicly held companies; 4) an IRS rule that would provide “bright lines” definitions of political intervention by nonprofit organizations and enforce the current law prohibiting 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations from making more than de minimis political expenditures; and finally 5) a constitutional amendment, ratified by Congress, that clarifies for the Supreme Court what the First Amendment really means. The biggest news of all at the hearing was a surprise and welcomed announcement by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., that the Senate will proceed with an upcoming vote on such an amendment.

American democracy is at dire risk in today’s byzantine system of unregulated and undisclosed money in politics. It is up to our members of Congress and regulators to take the next step on the heels of today’s hearing to bring it into the modern era.

Lisa Gilbert is the director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.