Is Hillary’s New Campaign Finance Reform Plan the Real Deal?

(Photo: Quad City Times via AP/Louis Brems)

Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters in Hampton, Illinois, on Monday, September 7.

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton unveiled an ambitious and expansive “democracy revitalization” pillar to her 2016 presidential campaign platform. “Americans are understandably cynical about a political system that has been hijacked by billionaires and special interests who will spend whatever it takes to crowd out the voices of everyday Americans,” the announcement said. “And with the rise of unlimited, secret spending in our political process, it is virtually impossible for anyone to really know who or what is influencing our elected officials.”

Campaign-finance reformers have applauded the platform, which they say largely mirrors the policies that they’ve advocated for. “It’s solid and it’s bold and as good if not better than anything we’ve seen from a presidential candidate,” says David Donnelly, CEO of campaign-finance advocate Every Voice. “She gets it right.”

Here’s a breakdown of what her platform includes:

Citizens United

Clinton vows to overturn Citizens United through either a constitutional amendment or by appointing only Supreme Court justices who reject both that decision and the Shelby County case that decimated the Voting Rights Act. Both Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O’Malley have already pledged to do the same. But more and more reformers are no longer content with just lip service about Citizens United­—they want greater commitment than that.

Dark Money

She also calls for an end to the scourge of unaccountable “dark money” by pushing for robust federal disclosure laws, as well as by pushing the SEC to require publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending. The latter has been long been a big policy point for reformers, and the SEC has failed to act on it before. But the rule seems to be gaining traction. Progressive Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren are using their political capital to pressure SEC Chair and Obama appointee Mary Jo White to take action. Apart from saying she would “promote” such rule-making, Clinton doesn’t offer specifics as to how she’d ensure such corporate disclosure.

Finally, Clinton says that she’ll sign an executive order that requires federal government contractors to disclose all its political spending to shadowy dark-money groups. As I reported a couple months ago, campaign-finance reform advocates have been increasing pressure on the Obama administration to sign such an executive order, and insiders say that it’s on his shortlist. But so far, he has not taken any action.

Public Campaign Finance

Campaign-finance reform advocates have pivoted their focus recently on pushing candidates to endorse public funding of federal campaigns. And again, both Sanders and O’Malley have committed to doing so. Details on the legislation that Sanders plans to introduce have not been released yet. O’Malley has limited his plan to just congressional races (there is already a presidential public-finance system, though it’s obsolete) and doesn’t specify whether his platform would use small-donor-matching.

Clinton’s plan specifically calls for a small-donor public-matching system for both presidential and congressional races and contribution limits for candidates who voluntarily opt in. This plan echoes the successful system currently used in New York City, which matches small donations at a 6:1 ratio. Clinton’s plan, however, doesn’t specify what the matching ratio would be. There is currently legislation in the House, introduced by Representative John Sarbanes, which would enact a public-matching system. So far, it has more than 100 Democratic co-sponsors.

Is This for Real?

The policy plan seems like a wish list for the campaign-finance reform community—indeed, it is largely based off of a plan from a coalition of democracy groups—though insiders say the one thing she failed to address was the utter inability of the FEC to enforce the existing campaign-finance laws.

“This signals a greater acceptance by mainstream elites,” Donnelly says, “that these policy ideas are the way that we’re going to solve the problem.”

Skeptics will be quick to point out that so far in the presidential campaign, Clinton has been heavily reliant on the big-money donors and powerful super PACs that she goes after in her plan. That’s certainly a fair point, and it’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of these policies would go directly against many corporations to which she has long been close to. But Democratic strategists often argue that unilateral disarmament from super PACs and big donors (like what Bernie Sanders has done) would be to the detriment of the greater good since a billionaire-fueled Republican would have a huge advantage. It’s also worth noting that as a New York senator in 2001, she co-sponsored the Clean Elections Act.

As David Dayen notes for The Intercept, Clinton has made some other surprising moves that go against the Wall Street grain—a couple weeks ago, she came out in support of legislation to end “golden parachute” bonuses and better regulate the revolving door. Dayen pegs this as her choosing the Elizabeth Warren wing over the Robert Rubin wing of the Democratic Party. That, in addition to this latest campaign-finance reform initiative, is certainly promising.

Whether this is just her pandering to progressive policies in response to Sanders’s unexpected surge, or whether these are genuine commitments that she will follow through on if elected, surely remains to be seen.

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