As much as the presidential candidates talk about the perils of political money, it might seem like a campaign finance overhaul on Capitol Hill is imminent. It’s not.
White House hopefuls from both sides of the aisle have been busy blasting the influence of billionaires and millionaires in the election system (while collecting their cash), but measures to restructure campaign laws remain stalled in Congress.
And even as the rhetoric against big money continues, most of the candidates have offered slim specifics about how they might update a system in which they are so vested.
Both candidates seeking the Democratic nomination — Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent — have pledged as part of their campaigns to pick Supreme Court justices that would overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 decision that helped pave the way for super PACs. They also both promise to push for public matching funds for small donors and for greater public transparency of donations.
“The limited options you have as a candidate are either overturning Citizens United or providing more disclosure or offering a matching plan for small contributions,” said Anthony Corrado, a government professor and campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine. “It’s hard to offer major alternatives because they are not considered constitutional or realistic.”
On the Republican side, with GOP voters focused more on terrorism and economic issues, campaign finance is a low priority on the list of issues playing a role in the volatile presidential primary contest. Even so, the candidates are talking about political money, particularly front-runner Donald Trump who has his own billionaire patron: himself.
Trump, an unorthodox standard-bearer for changing a campaign finance system widely accepted as broken, has bragged about self-financing his campaign. He criticized former rival Jeb Bush, in particular, for raising and spending huge sums of money.
Proponents of legislation to change campaign finance laws say the rhetoric on the presidential trail may ultimately turn into momentum in Congress.
“Everybody across the political spectrum, on the front lines of any campaign right now, is encountering this deep cynicism in the country,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who introduced a bill that would provide Americans with a $25 tax credit to be used for campaign donations. It also would offer a 6 to 1 taxpayer match from a newly created “Freedom from Influence Fund.”
His bill (HR 20) has support from 156 Democrats but only one Republican, Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina. Sarbanes said Clinton, whom he has endorsed in the Democratic primary, has embraced many of the ideas in his legislation.
In general, presidential candidates are talking about campaign finance in response to an angry electorate that feels overrun by big money, Sarbanes said.
“What’s really interesting is that we’ve moved now well past the point of universal recognition that this money-in-politics problem has to be dealt with to how do we deal with it, what are the solutions?” Sarbanes said, adding that he believes his small-donor proposals are the way to go.
Clinton and Sanders both have said they would push for a new Securities and Exchange Commission rule that would mandate more disclosures of public companies’ political spending and association dues.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said the support from Clinton and Sanders on the SEC rule is a hopeful sign for campaign finance overhaul groups that have been calling on Obama to issue.
But, Gilbert added, Trump is forcing his fellow candidates to talk about money in politics.
“Right now, campaign finance is getting a special level of intensity,” Gilbert said. “There are more organizations across the spectrum that think it’s important, and the front-runners in each party are seen as a champion on this topic.”
Other Republicans have given glimpses of what they might approve of doing, even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP lawmakers generally argue for fewer campaign finance regulations — not more — and against taxpayer financing of federal campaigns.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a New Hampshire TV station that he favors more disclosure of campaign donations. It’s a concept that has been supported in the past by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who introduced legislation in the 113th Congress that would require 24-hour notification of contributions over $200 and eliminate the limits on individual donations.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich has talked broadly about the influence of money in elections but has offered no specifics. While he has decried “a system where billionaires can decide who will be the next president,” Kasich’s campaign manager recently touted the support of billionaire Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, a former backer of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The big-money backing is a reflection that all the candidates this cycle are confronting an increasingly expensive campaign season. The 5-4 Citizens United decision allowed corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money on ads and other political tools calling for the election or defeat of a specific candidate.
And in 2014, the high court struck down in another 5-4 decision the overall limit on the total amount of money a wealthy donor can give to federal candidates in the McCutcheon v. FEC case. Together, these two Supreme Court decisions represent the biggest changes in campaign finance in years.
Supreme Court Role
The Supreme Court vacancy left by the passing of conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia means his successor could have far-reaching impact on campaign finance law.
“Scalia was an integral part of a five-justice bloc that has consistently struck down campaign finance laws,” said Richard Briffault, a campaign finance law expert and professor at Columbia Law School. “The court has been divided 5-4 on questions about campaign finance for a long time.”
In January, the justices sounded skeptical about mandatory representation fees paid by nearly all California teachers in a case that has far-reaching implications both for public-sector unions and the Democratic Party, which relies on union support.
Legal scholars had predicted that conservatives would prevail in Rebecca Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and overturn a 1977 decision that allows unions to require dues from employees they represent who aren’t members. With Scalia’s passing, a 4-4 split would leave the lower court decision in place and allow unions to continue collecting these dues.
Even if new federal campaign finance laws could find a more favorable Supreme Court in the future, that doesn’t guarantee Congress will move a bill.
Corrado, the Colby College professor, said there is more likely to be legislative action on campaign finance when members of Congress begin to think the system no longer benefits them.
“As more money comes in, we increasingly see more spending in key contests by independent groups,” Corrado said. “One wonders if members of Congress will embrace reform to gain control over their own campaigns.”
CQ’s Todd Ruger contributed to this report.
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