Though Senate Republicans have thwarted a constitutional amendment to rein in campaign contributions, Democrats can pursue alternative strategies to increase transparency without a supermajority
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT, TRNN: This week, Congress is back in session, and at the top of the Senate Democrats’ agenda is getting money out of politics.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE, U.S. SENATOR (D-RI): And money is not speech. Indeed, money can be a great many things other than speech, including some pretty nasty ones. It can be influence and inveiglement. It can be bullying, and it can be bribery. But the very theory that Citizens United has added to the debate in this country is a lie.
DESVARIEUX: In hopes of injecting some truth to the debate, Democrats are looking to vote on a constitutional amendment which would give Congress and state governments the authority to regulate and limit political spending on federal candidates. It would also prohibit the Supreme Court from reversing any future congressionally approved campaign-finance laws.
But does limiting contributions really get money out of politics? The Real News spoke with Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the nonpartisan organization Campaign Legal Center. She says that she commends the senators for bringing the issue to the forefront, but the amendment has some weaknesses.
MEREDITH MCGEHEE, POLICY DIRECTOR, CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER: The biggest problem in trying to do a constitutional amendment is simply trying to get the language written in such a way and drafted in such a way that the end result is what you intended. Things like the definition of the term expenditure can be very difficult to try and get something that’s interpreted the way that the drafters intended. And I think in this case it’s particularly important to note that the Citizens United organization, which brought the case in the first place, would actually be entitled to the media exemption, so that you could end up having gone through the whole amendment process and then the organization that was kind of the whole reason this thing began be exempt from any of the restrictions.
DESVARIEUX: So if this constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United would actually allow Citizens United to be exempt, what are the alternatives to get money out of politics?
Nick Nyhart is the president and CEO of Public Campaign, a national nonprofit organization looking to get special interest money out of the political process through implementing publicly financed elections.
NICK NYHART, PRESIDENT, PUBLIC CAMPAIGN: You need to get the people back in. You can’t just pay attention to getting the big money out. You’ve got to have everyday people have a voice and a stake in politics. And to do that, you need a bill like the Government by the People Act in the house, sponsored and led by John Sarbanes, or the companion bill in the Senate, Senator Durbin’s Fair Elections Now Act. Among incumbents right now, there are 160 backers in the House and 20 in the Senate.
And there are several states which have put in place systems like this, clean elections systems, fair elections systems, that are working. In Connecticut, for instance, about 80 percent of the elected officials use this kind of a system to get elected, based on small donors, everyday people.
DESVARIEUX: The Real News asked at a press conference about public campaign financing.
DESVARIEUX: Senator, would you be open to public campaign financing, then? Because there are critics that say this once won’t go far enough.
AMY KLOBUCHER, U.S. SENATOR (D-MN): I’m already on Senator Durbin’s bill in Minnesota. What we have is a situation which has worked quite well in our state, where we have people raise a certain amount of money, and then they get matched with public funds. And I think if someone that ran with no money of their own–I think that’s a fair way to do it.
But I think right now people realistically know we’re not going to be able to get this done at this moment, and we’re focusing right now on the thing that is so damaging to our democracy, and that is this outside money.
DESVARIEUX: But outside money is making its way to both Republicans and Democrats. Yet Republicans are standing as the major roadblock to getting the bill even up for a vote. No Republicans cosponsored the bill, leaving some, like Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, with a cynical view of the Republican stance.
BERNIE SANDERS, U.S. SENATOR (I-VT): I do, but I would love to be proven wrong. And if at the end of this week we get 67 votes, you can tell me that I was too cynical. How’s that?
DESVARIEUX: The amendment practically died this week with Republicans filibustering the next procedural vote to end debate. But Campaign Legal Center’s policy director Meredith McGehee says Democrats can rein in outside cash without a supermajority in both houses of Congress.
MCGEHEE: The President could appoint new appointees to the Federal Election Commission. The Congress could move forward on legislation that would provide new incentives for small donors to give and for politicians and candidates to, obviously, pursue those donations.
The real key here, I think, is to try and use some of the public resources to give new incentives that say, if you give $500–a lot of money for most Americans to a candidate–that could be, max, at a four or five to one. Therefore this actually becomes real money, and it’s something that then the candidate wants to pursue. Tax credits–how do you–you know, you give a candidate a campaign contribution, you get a tax credit. Small-donor PACs. If you have a PAC that puts together small-donor money and they have maybe higher contribution limits or other matches.
So I think this is all about changing the incentives. And rather than getting caught up in the kind of debate between public financing and welfare for politicians, which doesn’t get us–I think, move the ball forward, if you well, I think it’s very important these days to think more in a 21st century mentality. How do we change the incentives? How do we make sure that candidates have an opportunity to get their message out? Things like broadcast television, the publicly owned airwaves. People forget that the public owns the airwaves. Shouldn’t candidates be able to, without going in to, you know, their hands out, to the billionaires asking for money, shouldn’t they be able to get their message out to the American people?
DESVARIEUX: Based on a report by the Center for Responsive Politics and Wesleyan Media Project, the entire campaign is expected to cost cost more than $4 billion–a record for a midterm election. So far, almost 52 percent of ads aired in favor of Republican candidates were sponsored by interest groups, while 40 percent of pro-Democrat ads were funded by interest groups as well. Most ads have been bought with dark money.
ROBERT MAGUIRE, RESEARCHER, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: Look at McCutcheon and you look at Citizens United, both of those decisions clearly said that disclosure is still a valuable part of our campaign finance system, that it provides a valuable service to voters that’s sort of comparable to free speech. The speech of the people with the money is important, but so is the voters’ right to know who is speaking to them. And what we’re finding is that more and more the money is coming from groups that do not tell the voters who’s funding them or what is funding them.
DESVARIEUX: Despite partisan politics at play, Minnesota Democratic congressman Rick Nolan introduced a new bill bringing together many key points of other campaign finance legislation.
RICK NOLAN, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-MN): What I’m proposing is not just a federal handout. You know, you want to run for Congress? Sign up, and here’s a couple of million bucks. Go and have fun with it. No, no, no, no. We’re not going to do that. There’ll have to be a threshold where if you want to be a candidate for Congress, you have to raise a significant amount of money in small contributions–$50, $100 dollars–from a wide variety of people throughout your district to show that you do have a following, to show that you do have some ideas that are resonating with a significant number of people.
DESVARIEUX: But critics have turned and pointed their finger at this type of legislation, calling public campaign financing welfare for politicians. Congressman Nolan said getting money out of politics is a bipartisan issue. A purported 3 million signatures were delivered to Congress calling for a constitutional amendment, and 16 states, as well as 500 cities, have already passed resolutions calling for an amendment.
With the Senate’s proposed constitutional amendment likely to go nowhere here in the House, Americans should be prepared for more campaign ads and more campaign cash this election season. Reporting from Capitol Hill, this is Jessica Desvarieux for The Real News Network.