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TRNN’s Jessica Desvarieux looks at Clinton’s three-prong plan and whether it will truly get outside money out of politics

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux coming to you from Capitol Hill. The race for the White House is well underway, but here at the Real News we don’t want to just follow the horse race, we want to dig into the policies that these candidates are running on. And we’ll ask one simple but important question: will these policies actually improve the lives of the majority of Americans? One of those policies is campaign finance reform. According to a recent New York Times CBS News poll, 84 percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in political campaigns. And just recently Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton put forth her plan to curb that influence. So we put the plan to the test, and asked experts about the plan’s feasibility–and more importantly, will this actually limit the influence of money in political campaigns? HILLARY CLINTON: We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, not every corporation’s right to buy elections. DESVARIEUX: The buying of elections has become more and more of an issue after the Supreme Court Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed unions and corporations to raise unlimited funds in the name of free speech. As a part of Clinton’s campaign finance reform plan she said she would only nominated justices who would overturn Citizens United, a decision that many might not know she was at the center of years ago when she was running to become a senator. The 90-minute documentary titled Hillary was produced by a nonprofit group called Citizens United. The Federal Election Commission or FEC banned it from airing during the New York Senate primaries because it was against the bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which criminalized ads produced by corporations 30 days before primary election. But in a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court reversed that ban and stated that corporations deserve First Amendment protections. Now Clinton says she will nominated justices who will overturn Citizens United. But with none of the five justices who supported the decision planning on retiring, there is no guarantee that Clinton’s plan will become a reality. Also, Clinton would have to get her nominee confirmed by the Senate, which is currently controlled by a Republican majority. DAVID DONNELLY: That’s where she comes in. She needs to not just put a plan for this, which is again, it’s a very strong proposal and a bold vision for the kind of democracy we need to create. She now needs to campaign around the country and rally Americans to this cause. And then we can put pressure on Congress with the next president to make this the law of the land. DESVARIEUX: David Donnelly is the president and CEO of Every Voice, a campaign finance reform advocacy group. He commends Clinton on taking action on proposing a constitutional amendment to protect “the undue influence of billionaires and special interests.” But changes to the Constitution will require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. Then it must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. This is a major endeavor, says University of Massachusetts, Boston political science professor Thomas Ferguson. He says Clinton’s focus on overturning Citizen’s United is actually misguided reform. THOMAS FERGUSON: Ms. Clinton should not just be actually just saying, I’m going to pressure the FEC to actually enforce the laws that, probably they are on the books in some fundamental sense. The Supreme Court justices are widely thought to just assume that the money would be disclosed. It’s the FEC that refused to do it. And you don’t need a constitutional amendment for that. You just need a determined president. DESVARIEUX: Another point of Clinton’s proposal is that she would establish a small donors matching program. After having to pass through both houses of Congress, candidates who opt to participate in the program must agree to a substantially lower limit on how much money they receive from an individual donor. In a previous interview with Campaign Legal Center’s Policy Director Meredith McGehee, she described the benefits as an incentive to get politicians to focus on everyday Americans’ issues. MEREDITH MCGEHEE: 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 can be matched at a four, five to one. Therefore, it 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. DESVARIEUX: But Ferguson says to get a clean election there’s only one way to do it: public campaign funds. FERGUSON: Of course, elections are very expensive. They cost a lot of money. Now , there are basically only two choices folks have for this. Either we all pay a little or somebody else pays a lot. And those folks who pay control the process. DESVARIEUX: With all these campaign finance reforms for the future, how is Clinton handling her current campaign? Clinton’s campaign revealed that it’s raised $47 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. This is the most of any campaign in its first quarter ever. Also, the primary super PAC backing Clinton’s presidential run, Priorities USA Action, has raised $25 million since July according to Politico. Under the current super PAC structure, donors behind these millions do not have to reveal themselves. The only Democratic candidate rejecting big donor-funded super PACs is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In an effort to be more transparent, the Clinton campaign has revealed her top bundlers, or people who help raise funds, known as Hillblazers. The list includes prominent politicians and businesspeople, like Rep. Joaquin Castro from Texas, Facebook founder and New Republic owner Chris Hughes, billionaire venture capitalist JB Pritzker, and Univision owner Haim Saban. When Clinton’s campaign funds were first reported, Clinton’s campaign stated that 94 percent of its contributions were from donations less than $250. But in reality, just $8 million came from donations of $200 or less. Part three of Clinton’s reform plan includes increased disclosure of political spending. Clinton proposes a new Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring publicly traded companies disclose political spending to shareholders. She also says that she will sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all political spending, something President Obama could sign into law today. FERGUSON: I regard that as a tacit White House collusion in this business. I mean, if these folks wanted to stop the so-called dark money, then they could do it. And they don’t need–I mean, they could make the sun come up on the dark money. They could just–the FEC could just tell them they got to do it. And it has just refused over and over to touch that. DESVARIEUX: Much of what candidate Clinton proposes, Ferguson says it sounds a lot like what candidate Barack Obama promised when he ran for president. Every Voice CEO David Donnelly says they have been disappointed in President Obama’s stance since being elected. DONNELLY: You know, we are a little disappointed in President Obama’s performance on this issue. He did campaign on this back in 2008, he referenced the issue in 2012 as well, but has not followed that up with action. That’s why it’s very important in this election cycle we see candidates not just put forth a platform, strong platforms, but we also see them weigh in and say exactly how they’re going to advocate and organize to fix the system once they’re in office. DESVARIEUX: But in office or running for office, Ferguson says the interests of the elite are at the center of today’s politics. FERGUSON: Right now American elections are sort of like the Superbowl. I mean, the rest of us can cheer for our team or something, but that’s it. You know, otherwise you have two teams controlled by millionaires killing each other in front of us. DESVARIEUX: This is Jessica Desvarieux reporting for the Real News in Washington.


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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.