Archive for the 'Issues Speech' Category

The Wisconsin Supreme Court was badly divided on the “coordination” question that it resolved in favor ending an ongoing criminal investigation.  The majority and dissents expressed their disagreement in harsh terms, and there was a similar outbreak of ill-will or impatience among experts and seasoned observers trading views on the election law list serv.  Dividing the camps for the sake of convenience into progressives and conservatives: the former were appalled by the case and the latter overjoyed, and neither could believe how the other was reacting.  The case was either a nightmare for desperately needed reform, or a vindication of the rule of law in a struggle with political persecution and police state tactics.

But are the issues being fairly brought out amid all this vitriol, and is it necessarily true that the opinions on the coordination issues in Wisconsin must always and inevitably fall out along ideological and party lines?

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.”

Just before the turn of the year, the Tenth Circuit decided that Citizens United, the organization, was entitled to the Colorado campaign finance law’s press exemption and so was not required to file public financial reports when producing and distributing a political documentary. Citizens United v. Gessler, 773 F.3d 200 (10th Cir. 2014). Colorado has construed the exemption broadly to apply to online publications and bloggers as well as to print and traditional media outlets.  But the State urged that the Court distinguish between entities about which the voters know or could easily learn something, and those hiding behind empty names lacking cue or content and having no extended operating history that listeners or views could consult for useful information.  The latter organizations—the “Citizens for a Better America” or “People for Justice” —are engaged in what it termed called “drop-in advocacy” during election seasons.

The Court, impressed with the distinction, still rejected its application to Citizens United. CU was well known; there was ample information available to anyone caring to seek it out, and the informational interest of voters was adequately protected. On its reading of Citizens United, the Court emphasized the interest supporting disclosure as the voters’ informational interest, not the deterrence of “corruption” or its appearance.

This raises the question: for purposes of the disclosure requirements based on the voter’s informational interest, is it possible to distinguish between an ongoing enterprise of known purpose and the shadowy “drop-in” advocacy group which is often here today and gone tomorrow?  And if it is, is that interest served primarily by disclosure of donors, or by other information about its organization and purposes?

Disclosure in a 21st Century Reform Program

February 2, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Writing off the Koch announcement of massive 2016 spending, Ron Fournier urges that we be realistic about campaign finance reform in the 21st century: no limits, just instant disclosure. He seems to be salvaging what he can from the current mishmash of changes in political practices, outdated campaign finance requirements and increasingly unsparing limits on Congress's constitutional authority. Without a sharp focus on disclosure, he argues, the 2016 election will go largely dark.

Fournier’s analysis has two considerable virtues: a call for the debate to adjust to constitutional and political realities and an emphasis on single-minded priority in the reform of the law. The debate is stuck, and one reason is that a fair number of interested observers are dedicated to fighting the same arguments heard since the 1970s. A whole host of objectives are being kept artificially alive for discussion. Political spending is to be reduced and the prohibition on corporate spending restored. Independent spending is to be curtailed because some of it is suspect, gutted by disreputable, if not invariably illegal, forms of coordination. Political discourse is being poisoned by attack advertising.

And, of course, there is too much "dark money" and disclosure law should be strengthened against it. Here is where Fournier recommends that reform energy be expended.

Inexpensive Issues Speech and the Regulation of Impact

January 5, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer
The Wall Street Journal has little use for campaign finance rules, and it cannot surprise anyone with its complaint about state laws compelling political disclosure. But its reflexive suspicion of motives behind these laws, and ready, scornful dismissal of any need for them, does not mean that it is always wrong. A recent editorial questioning a state disclosure law, and praising a court for overturning it, is a case in point. The WSJ has this one right. The problem it identifies has cropped up around the country, and it is not helpful to the cause of reform to have the objective of disclosure defined by enactments like this.