Super PACs: Causes and Effects

May 29, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Professor Bradley Smith has written an exceptionally succinct and well-argued case for super PACs.  This author of Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform does not neglect to cite “personal freedom” in defense of these organizations, but he challenges their critics on one other level: their effects on the electoral process.  He argues that super PAC spending improves turnout and competition, lessens the fundraising burden on candidates, and addresses other issues in the political system, such as the early primary states’ grip on the nominating process.   Whatever else one may think about all this money, he writes, we should see Super PACs as beneficial – – doing good things for the political process.

There are points of major interest in Smith’s presentation, which are found in both what he says and what he does not.

A dispute over whether the FEC is tilting its investigations against conservatives or Republicans is mostly a waste of energy.  Commissioner Goodman got this started at a Commission hearing and has been rebuked by Commissioner Ravel.  The Republicans profess to be outraged; the Democrats announce that this outrage has rendered them speechless.  Once again there is here, in the midst of this clamor, an important question-- the uses and misuses of the agency's enforcement process—that is being misdirected into another round of finger-pointing about bad faith and improper motive.

Public Citizen has concluded that the Federal Election Commission is failing.  Its shortcomings are "dramatic and uncharacteristic", because they range across the entire field of their responsibilities in conducting audits; enforcing the law through investigations, settlements and lawsuits; and issuing regulations and advisory opinions.  The Public Citizen analysis is statistical and focuses on vote deadlocks.   The FEC is indeed disagreeing a great deal—about that, there is no doubt.  But is the agency failing or is the old regulatory model collapsing under the pressure of changing law and political practice?

Public Citizen cannot answer this question because it is looking at agency performance in the aggregate.  It is unable, for example, to explain what might be happening in particular cases, or why deadlocks are occurring across various agency functions.  There are certainly instances where the vote for enforcement is as suspect as a vote against it.  The result is still deadlock but the reasons for it are not quite what Public Citizen implies.  Nonetheless, it being assumed that matters could not have gotten this bad without dereliction of duty somewhere, the FEC takes the blame.  It is expected to take up the big issues, such as those involving "coordination" or "dark money", which are precisely the issues over which disagreement is certain to arise.  And so around and around it goes.

One alternative available to the FEC in this period of uncertainty is to commit itself to less controversial but highly productive functions.  Bipartisan suggestions have been made, for example, that it could do better in discharging its disclosure function, and in reforming, as Congress has directed, the operation of its Administrative Fines program. There is value in starting with these basic responsibilities.  To the Commission’s credit, it has initiated a rulemaking to move in this direction.

And on this question of disclosure, there is much to be done, more than suspected by many who hold the view that, for all the discord and disappointment, campaign finance law administration has performed well on public reporting.  Now we have some fresh scholarship by Jennifer Heerwig and Katherine Shaw that subjects this assumption to careful, critical examination.  Jennifer A. Heerwig and Katherine Shaw, Through a Glass Darkly: The Rhetoric and Reality of Campaign Finance Disclosure, Geo. L. J. 1443 (2014).

The State of the Debate

May 18, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The Supreme Court has been asked to consider whether the Attorney General of California may require tax-exempt organizations to produce donor information normally provided only to the Internal Revenue Service. The petitioner, the Center for Competitive Politics, argues that the Ninth Circuit has improperly upheld this requirement by giving the State ready access to this information on a slim-to-none showing of need.  The Attorney General has asserted that the information will be useful to the State's attempts to enforce the law, such as the protections against self-dealing or improper loans.  Others apparently suspect that there is more going on, namely, a move to discourage the sort of politically shaped tax-exempt activities associated with the Koch brothers.

This is an important case, now before Justice Kennedy.  It is the latest turn in a troubled reform debate.   First there is the fight over disclosure, which is relatively new. For years this was supposed to be the common ground that camps badly divided over other forms of regulation could occupy: but no more.  And just as reform communities have suspected political actors of cheating on the law, engaging in "circumvention,” now skeptics of regulation fear that, in the absence of consensus on legislative reform, state actors are resorting to extralegal administrative remedies.

Over the weekend, on the election law listserv, a snippy exchange quickly developed about the California case and what it represented.  In some part, the views fired back and forth reflected the widespread assumption that positions on reform can be explained primarily by reference to their proponents’ political objectives.  It is believed that reformers want regulation to advance progressive policies, or that their antagonists oppose regulation because they wish to surrender political power to the marketplace.

In the War of FEC Commissioners, a Republican, Lee Goodman, has returned the fire of his colleague Ann Ravel and given his account of whether the agency has failed to enforce the law.  He says it's not so. Much of the time, he writes, they agree, and where they don't, the points of disagreement are focused on large issues like the definition of what constitutes a “political committee.” But he says more, giving examples of what he means, and the additional argumentation is illuminating.

Commissioner Goodman claims that in explaining deadlock, the Democratic side won’t credit their Republican colleagues with principled stands.  He cites Chair Ravel’s vote against continued enforcement of a rule governing paid Internet advertising. It is not up to a Commissioner, Goodman suggests, to use the enforcement process to score a point against a valid regulation or to pursue a respondent who has complied with it.

But he also notes another case of deadlock, which involved the enforcement of the Commission’s "candidate debate" regulations. And this example shows, and to some degree why, the Commissioners tend to fall out when it seems that unity would be within their grasp.