Archive for the 'Federal Candidates & Officeholders' Category
The FEC cannot apparently do enough to make its critics look good. The problem is not, of course, that the FEC as a whole, as a unified body, is taking action that invites complaint. It is the absence of constructive cooperation among the Commissioners when it seems that it should be possible. No one comes off well. And it all turns out worse than necessary. The Fox News Debate case is the most recent example.
It starts with the ostensible news, apparently actively promoted by one of the Commissioners, that the FEC had voted secretly to “punish” Fox News for expanding one of its sponsored Presidential debates to include more rather than fewer candidates. In fact, the FEC had to consider a formal complaint brought by an excluded candidate who was perhaps understandably miffed that he seemed to be the only Republican not permitted to take the stage in an August, 2015 debate, which involved a main event and an “undercard,” featuring seventeen candidates. The FEC did not go chasing after Fox: it was stuck with the task of resolving the complaint. And it always votes “in secret,” under statutory procedures, with the results publicly released later.
To address the complaint, the FEC had to apply the rule governing a media organization’s “staging” of candidate debates. These rules have been around for a long time—too long perhaps, and a reconsideration and revision may be long overdue. But the rule is the rule, and the General Counsel prepared a memo for the agency that found that it had not been followed. Rather than apply “pre-established objective criteria,” to the determination of which candidates would be invited, Fox improvised. It twice adjusted those criteria to maximize the candidates who would be included. And it freely admitted that it had done this “to include and accommodate” the large field.
Of course, the conclusion that this amounts to a violation of law seems more than a little peculiar. Fox was not engaged in the conduct the rule was concerned with: rigging the rules to favor particular candidates over another, which would be a form of prohibited corporate contribution to the golden circle of the included. For all practical purposes, Fox was dispensing altogether with any criteria for selection. As it happened, it still managed to leave out the complainant. After all, any criteria at all, even ones barely worth the name, will leave someone out.
A number of political candidates over the years have recounted the experience of raising too much money, too much of the time, for their campaigns. They find it awkward and embarrassing to ask for the money, and the pace and intensity of this fundraising consume too much time that could be diverted to more productive uses. They understand the suspicions it raises in those looking on from the outside. Congressman Steve Israel is the most recent to write about experience, and he is a respected elected official whose contribution to this narrative will not be ignored.
Israel is not talking about fundraising events to which tickets are sold, or about appeals on line or in the mail. It is about the person asked for money face to face, or ear to ear: the direct "ask", which will be answered positively, negatively, or somewhere in between. It is a personal appeal, but one that is managed and strained: the candidate crammed in the cubicle with a phone, staff at his side, reading off notecards with bits of data about the fundraising target on the other end of the line.
Reform theorists worry about the risk in this contact of trading policy for money, or about the dangers of intense association over time with people who have lots of money. On the conscious level, the politician may be tempted to offer something for cash; on the subconscious level, he simply may come to prefer the company of rich people and identify with their policy objectives and interests.
But it can be more complicated than that. Gift theorists—not to be confused with reform theorists—tell us that the psychology of giving and receiving is never simple. William Ian Miller has written that “central to the notion of the gift is the way in which reciprocity is effected and enforced,” and this is tricky business, because gift giving and receiving have the potential to “threaten, humiliate, annoy, manipulate, and vex.” William Ian Miller, Humiliation (1993), 21, 23.
In judging the Robert’s Court record on campaign finance, Rick Hasen finds that progressives have little to cheer about, except that it might have been worse. He looks into the reasons why the Court majority has moved more slowly toward deregulation than some might have predicted, and, as one might expect, his analysis is insightful. Election Law’s Path in the Roberts Court’s First Decade: A Sharp Right Turn But with Speed Bumps and Surprising Twists (August 4, 2015). UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2015-70. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2639902. But he also assigns the Court heavy responsibility for the state of reform. Hasen writes that, as a result of decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, the Roberts Court majority has “caused the existing campaign finance system to slowly implode,” launching reform into a” death spiral” and erecting “structural impediments” that prevent further reform.
To be sure, the Court’s rulings have contributed to the collapse of the ‘70s reforms, and there is no doubt that its jurisprudence complicates the pursuit of reform programs—that is, certain reform programs that follow the very Watergate-era model that has largely come apart. But an account focused on the Court skips to the middle of the story; it leaves too much out.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had its chance to clarify the distinction between criminal and lawful politics, and it seems to have missed it. Among other issues, it was called on to consider the question of what constitutes an "official act.” In extensive briefing, the Court was warned that whatever one thinks of former Governor McDonnell's behavior, the jury was not properly instructed about where, in the world of politics, mutual backscratching ends, and bribery or honest services fraud begins. The cases cited included Citizens United (along with McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission) and their declaration that ingratiation and access are elements of ordinary political interaction, not corruption.
But the Court in McDonnell rejected the relevance of these cases. It insisted that an official act included “customary” or “settled” practices of the widest variety that cannot be known except upon the consideration of the facts in particular cases. The Court conceded that it might not be enough for such an act to simply relate to official duties. But it did not explain the nature of the required connection. So long as the officeholder might act in a fashion that could connect in any way and at any point to official duties--to any “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” to come before the government--it would be sufficient to qualify as an official act on which a criminal prosecution would be based. The connection would not have to be direct: the alleged official action could be one of a series of steps over time toward the accomplishment of the desired end.
The press about super PACs is heating up: there are articles popping up all over the place—here, there, everywhere. There is at once a general sense that major change is overtaking the campaign finance system, and no agreement about what it means or what, if anything, should be done about it. So the old arguments continue. Often they make no difference. Sometimes they make matters worse.
Consider the recent decision issued by the United States District Court in Holmes v. Federal Election Commission, No. 14-1243(RMC), 2015 (WL 17788778 (D.D.C. April 20, 2015). Holmes brought a complaint against the contribution limits in one particular and, some would argue, peculiar application. Congress structured the limits on a "per election" basis: indexed for inflation, the individual per election limit is now $2700, $2600 in the last cycle. But this limit works differently for different classes of candidates. A candidate actually or effectively unopposed in the primary can collect a full contribution for that non-event, then immediately collect the same amount from the same contributor for the general and spend all of it in the later election---a sensible move, because she has no other election in which to spend it. The opposing candidate who must struggle through the primary will use up the limit for that election and have only $2700 left for the general.
Holmes believes that this is wrong, and a constitutional wrong at that: that it denies her the right to commit the full lawful amount to the candidate she supports in the general election, and that it advantages incumbents who are most likely to avoid primary competition. The Court disagreed, characterizing her challenge as a "veiled" attack on the contribution limits overall.