Even as most of the presidential candidates have pivoted their focus to foreign affairs and the rise of ISIS, poll after poll makes one thing clear: voters are still concerned about the influence of money in the political system.
This voter alarm is escalating hand in hand with campaign spending. The Pew Research Center released a report last week showing that even as voter turnout ebbs and flows between presidential and midterm elections, the amount of money dumped into congressional campaigns grows with each cycle. At the same time, the proportion of total spending that comes from outside groups like super PACs has soared since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. In the meantime, spending by traditional PACs and party committees’ spending has held steady.
And as the 2016 races heat up, this election cycle is on pace to see by far the biggest influx of political money in American history. Candidates—mostly Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—have dished out plenty of money-related accusations, and will no doubt do so again in this week’s presidential debates (which are the last of the year). Yet the candidates have spent surprisingly little time talking about actual policy solutions.
Meanwhile, polls showing voter disgust over money in politics just keep piling up.
· Last week, an Associated Press poll showed that 78 percent of both Democrats and Republicans favor requiring donor disclosure—87 percent believe full disclosure of donors would be an effective reform in the face of the rising tide of “dark” money in elections.
· A Pew survey released in November showed that more than three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats believe that money has more influence politics now than ever before. A full 77 percent of American thought there should be spending limits for campaigns; 64 percent thought the high cost of running for office discouraged good candidates from running.
· According to a summer New York Times/CBS poll, nearly half of all Americans (across the political spectrum) think we need to completely change the way we fund campaigns, with wide support for reining in super PAC and wealthy donor influence.
· In the wake of Citizens United, 78 percent of Americans thought the highly consequential ruling should be overturned, according to a Bloomberg survey.
The challenge, of course, will be building public consensus around solutions. Debate moderators could help move the conversation forward by asking pointed questions about candidates’ reform proposals. So far the debates have been heavy on political drama, and short on concrete policy discussion. But until candidates tackle the issue directly, voter anger will likely continue to mount.
Progressives who have been pressuring President Barack Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending got fresh ammunition this week with the release of a scathing report faulting the president’s campaign finance “legacy of inaction.”
President Obama has talked a big game on campaign-finance reform, says the report released by Rootstrikers, a grassroots anti-corruption group, but he has failed to follow through.
Obama promised to push public campaign financing through Congress, as well as participate in and fix the ailing presidential election funding system. He’s repeatedly bemoaned the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and the subsequent flood of “dark” money into the political process. And, in the face of a recalcitrant Congress, the report says that he’s repeatedly shied away from using his executive power to pass reform.
Now Obama has one last chance to match rhetoric with action. Activists have pressed on multiple fronts for the Obama administration to pull back the curtain on the billions of dollars in undisclosed “dark” money spent on elections. They’ve called for stepped up enforcement and regulations at the Federal Election Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Most recently, progressives have launched a full-court press to get Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contactors, at least, to fully disclose their political spending, including the money they donate to politically active trade associations and “social welfare” organizations. They argue that as levels of political money soar higher and higher, such an order would at least shine a light on the spending of at least 70 percent of Fortune 100 companies.
“President Obama said in his State of the Union that a better politics means spending ‘less time drowning in dark money ... that pull[s] us into the gutter,’” Common Cause President Miles Rapoport said in a statement back in March. “The public interest demands we curb the culture of pay-to-play that infects Washington—but first we have to know who is beholden to whom. That’s why it’s important that the president use his authority to help build a ‘better politics’ and sign this executive order.”
For advocates behind that campaign, the Rootstrikers report comes just in time.
“President Obama has no one to blame but himself for his failing legacy on money in politics,” Kurt Walters, Rootstrikers campaign manager, said in a statement. “It's cynical even by Washington standards—Obama has said for six years that he's outraged at Citizens United but hasn't bothered to do anything to combat the decision's effects. We need action, not empty rhetoric.”
The report calls on the president to take action by his final State of the Union address in January, which some have identified as the latest point that executive action could realistically expose dark money spending in the 2016 elections.
Reform advocates are paying close attention to negotiations over the federal spending bill, which among other campaign-finance riders that would curb the president’s ability to increase disclosure through executive action. How the White House treats these rider threats will likely signal whether or not the administration plans to act on any part of the disclosure agenda.
“It’s fanciful to think the president is sitting uninvolved and then a bill just arrives on his desk,” said Walters in an interview. “If it gets to his desk with one or more [campaign-finance riders] on it, it will be because the administration allowed it to be such a low priority that they were willing for it to come on his desk.”
In December of 2014, Obama failed to veto the so-called Cromnibus spending bill, which included a rules change that dramatically increased spending limits to the political parties for special accounts that pay for conventions, recounts, and buildings.
Rootstrikers has circulated a petition demanding executive action on disclosure that has already gained 100,000 signatures. That’s the threshold that, according to a White House policy enacted in 2011, requires an official response from the administration.
Progressive organizers, which include such Obama allies as Credo and Demand Progress, say they haven’t given up. They point to past successes with similar public pressure campaigns on such issues as Internet neutrality and the Keystone XL pipeline, which they say helped force the White House’s hand.
“I think you’ve seen it in a lot of areas, where there’s a lot of hard-edged pressure and a month or two later he’ll take action,” Walters says.
Republicans are once again using the politically volatile process of funding the government as a clearinghouse for a whole host of ideological riders—from defunding Planned Parenthood to curtailing the ability of the government to enforce labor and environmental regulations.
And congressional Republicans are unified in backing all these riders—except one. Conservatives stirred up a GOP firestorm this month over a spending bill rider introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would remove limits on how much political parties may spend in coordination with candidates.
Tea Party conservatives argue that the rider is a blatant power play to bolster the Republican establishment’s ability to beat back conservative candidates who don’t toe the party line. A group of 50 prominent conservatives circulated a letter last week declaring that “the McConnell rider provides preferential treatment to the Washington establishment and subordinates the voices of those who contribute to other multi-candidate organizations.”
The Freedom Caucus, a faction of 40 Tea Party-oriented conservatives who often act as a collective thorn in the side of leadership, came out in stern opposition to the rider. This led to speculation over whether conservatives might team up with House Democrats in opposition to the spending bill if the coordination deregulations remained solely aimed at the political parties.
But any hope of a left-right coalition evaporated when Freedom Caucus members rolled out their solution: New rules to permit coordination between unrestricted super PACs and the candidates that they back.
“There’s McConnell’s campaign-finance issue that’s being talked about, which we think is not the direction in which we need to go unless you’re going to free up the restrictions on everyone,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan said, as The Hill reported, at a Heritage Foundation conservative roundtable on Capitol Hill last week.
Campaign-finance reform advocates countered that coordination restrictions are the only thing keeping a flood of unlimited super PAC money from completely overtaking individual campaigns. In its Citizens United ruling in 2010, the Supreme Court deregulated only campaign expenditures made independently of candidates.
Yes, the supposed firewall between candidates and the outside groups backing them has increasingly broken down—particularly given partisan gridlock and inaction at the Federal Election Commission.
But the so-called “compromise” would have the effect of destroying the candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement. Wertheimer called the plan “an unmitigated disaster” that “certainly does nothing to make an already unacceptable McConnell rider in any way acceptable.”
The Freedom Caucus’s threat to jam up the spending bill in the House appears to have drawn the attention of Republican leadership. As TheWashington Post reported Monday, Congressional aides familiar with the negotiation process said “the campaign finance rule could possibly be adapted to ease those concerns by including language that would allow the rule to apply to potential third-party committees that might be created in the future.”
The question now is whether the Freedom Caucus has any chance getting such language into the law. It’s unclear whether McConnell would shift his focus from strengthening the parties to further deregulating outside players. It’s also unclear whether the White House would outright veto a bill that includes a rider that congressional Democrats have called a poison pill.
But progressive activists have moved aggressively to block the coordination rider, along with several others that relate to campaign financing. The riders take direct aim at President Barack Obama’s ability to unilaterally increase disclosure of secret political money.
One rider would defund any executive branch effort to require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending. Another would block the Internal Revenue Service from issuing new rules to define what constitutes political activity. Still another would block the Securities and Exchange Commssion from requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending.
In the long run, the fate of such riders may not make much difference in any case. Despite progressive prodding, the Obama administration has done little to rein in undisclosed “dark” money via executive action in any form.
AP Photo/Erik Schelzig Union supporters hold up signs near the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Friday, December 4, 2015. Welcome to The American Prospect ’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. (Compiled by Justin Miller —Edited by Harold Meyerson ) T he United Auto Workers has finally gotten itself a win in the South. Skilled-trades workers at Volkswagen’s sole U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted to unionize late last week—forming a micro-unit that the UAW hopes to use as a foothold to create a factory-wide bargaining unit. The election comes more than a year and a half after the union failed to win a highly contentious plant-wide vote that drew the ire of many a conservative Tennessee Republican. Though the unit is just a fraction—roughly 150 workers—of the plant’s workforce, no win is a small one for unions in the South. The UAW’s ultimate goal is to represent the full factory and implement a German-...
Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signs a ceremonial veto of the controversial "right-to-work" legislation on Thursday, June 4, 2015, at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 training facility in St. Louis. Welcome to The American Prospect ’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. (Compiled by Justin Miller —Edited by Harold Meyerson ) R ight-to-work legislation continues to bubble up in states that have been successful in staving off such laws. Call it a never-ending game of right-to-work whack-a-mole. Last week, West Virginia Senate President Bill Cole called for lawmakers to pass right-to-work legislation in what he—and conservatives invariably—characterize as an attempt to attract businesses to the economically downtrodden region. Labor leaders contend that it’s just the latest attempt to reduce wages for already-struggling workers. (Given West Virginia’s history as the geographic heart of...