Archive for the 'Federal Candidates & Officeholders' Category

An Uprising for Campaign Finance Reform?

April 20, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

A few years ago, after the enactment of McCain Feingold, the Federal Election Commission began issuing implementing rules, and there were not well received in reform quarters.  It was objected that the agency was ignoring Congressional intent and gutting the law.  One line of attack was possible Hill intervention to disapprove the rules pursuant to the Congressional Review Act.   At a lunch with Senators to discuss this possibility, a prominent reform leader told the assembled legislators that if they did not reject the rules and hold the FEC to account, the public “would rise up” in protest. The public uprising did not occur, neither the Senate nor the House took action, and the reform critics took their cases to court—with some but not complete success.

But the hope for public pressure remains alive, and as Matea Gold reports in The Washington Post, there is some thought that with Super PACs and the like, things have gotten so out of hand that voters will insist on action.  The ranking of campaign finance among other priorities important to voters remains low, but by one reading, it is inching up the list.  Any upward movement is taken to be, maybe, a sign of more popular passion to come.  This is always the wish.  In the annals of modern campaign finance, it is never a wish come true.

But campaign finance history also shows that elected officials can be moved to take up this cause, and the same Post story that speculates about changes in public opinion records, more concretely, restiveness on the part of politicians.  And this could make a difference.  Candidates and officeholders cited in the story, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, worry about the small number of Americans—“about a 100 people”-- who can shape the course of a campaign with their money.  The issue for Senator Graham is not, apparently, the cost to political equality: it is the unfairness to candidates who find that these wealthy activists “are going to be able to advocate their cause at the expense of your cause.”

The New Donors

April 15, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The doctrinal architecture of campaign finance is straining under the pressure of adapting to new realities. Most of the hard questioning has been expended on the faded distinction between contributions and expenditures and its relationship to free speech values.  It is all thoroughly familiar by now: the contribution which is “speech by proxy”, entitled to less protection, and the independent expenditure which is more pure speech and, while subject to disclosure requirements, cannot be put under dollar limits.  How the money is spent is the controlling inquiry: who spends it is less important, and Citizens United pushed this point harder in holding that free speech rights don't depend on the identity of the speaker.

The hole in this analysis is the absence of attention to the activity of politics—the "doing of politics.”   People who come together are doing more than speaking: they are doing politics, acting in concert to effect political goals.   This is a dimension of First Amendment jurisprudence that is normally covered in discussion of the freedom of association.  But attention to association has been fleeting, largely disappearing from Supreme Court jurisprudence, and when it reappears, it often collapses back into the free speech-centered jurisprudence that has reigned for decades now. The associational right is treated as expressive association, just the association that enables participants in group efforts to amplify their individual "views."

An account of doing politics may seem in the first instance to serve only a broadened perspective of First Amendment protections.  On this view, it is another weight placed on the scales against regulation. But it is also a way to think about what is really happening in the conduct of politics, and to relate it to the goals and limits—both the goals and limits—of regulation. And it seems especially useful now when a new Super PAC donor, one refusing to play “second fiddle,” lays claim to a commanding position in electoral politics.

Second Fiddles, in a Tribute to Buckley

April 10, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

There has been news of an original structure for Super PAC activities, and it has scrambled assumptions about how these entities might be organized and function. The coordination debate to this point has been all about candidate control or influence.  In the different arrangement coming to light, the donors behind the PACs are striving for control.  A source tells Bloomberg Politics: “Donors used to be in the category of ‘write a check and go away’ while the operatives called all the shots. Donors don’t want to play second fiddle anymore.”

It appears that the notion now is for the donors to play multiple fiddles.  Funders would put together several PACs committed to the same candidacy, each such committee to be operated for discrete purposes.  One PAC would fund TV ads, another would handle social media, and additional committees would attend to any number of other tasks, including data mining, voter turnout, or volunteer recruitment.  David Keating has suggested that this network would also enable each funder to have the consultants of her choice, or spotlight within her PAC’s communications the issues she most cares about.

Super PACs in the Electoral Process

March 31, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer
The Super PAC is the leading issue in campaign finance, and this is only superficially because it is new, exotic and, to many who write about it, alarming.  It has without question brought to head the fault line running through the contribution-expenditure distinction and expedited the obsolescence of the Buckley framework.  And it is forcing the question of whether we should be concerned in campaign finance about corruption or its appearance, or perhaps about something else.  And the answer is “something else.”

Reform Initiatives Moved by “Reward and Punishment”

March 27, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer
A wing of the progressive reform movement, frustrated with other strategies, is turning to the carrot and the stick.  It program is to use rewards or punishments to exact pledges or other commitments from candidates and officeholders.  It will dangle the prospect of financial support, wield the threat of denied campaign funding, and maybe mete out punishment for resistance by giving money to the opposition.  All of this is described by Derek Willis in a recent New York Times Upshot piece that notes what is long been known – – that voters do not rank campaign finance regulation high among their priorities.  Unable to rely on public opinion or pressure, these reform advocates look to cut a deal with current or prospective legislators, to make them an offer they cannot refuse.