Archive for the 'Outside Groups' Category

The Supreme Court and the Political Parties

May 23, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Supreme Court has turned Jim Bopp away, denying his wish to have the parties relieved of core McCain-Feingold restrictions. There could be any number of explanations. The Court may have no appetite at the moment for a major campaign finance case. Or, having chipped away at McCain-Feingold, the Justices may not be inclined to demolish its centerpiece. After all, if the parties are hurting, then Congress, its membership filled with party members and candidates, is perfectly free to take stock of their needs and do away with a legal impediment if necessary.

There is one other possibility. If the Justices are concerned with the condition of parties, and they're relying on general commentary outside the court for their assessment, they would not have too much reason to worry. They would read that parties have found a way to adapt to McCain-Feingold. Various experts are telling them about energetic online fundraising and about more dramatic innovations, like the establishment of super PACs functioning as "shadow parties." On this account, the parties are not in crisis. They are thriving. The furniture is being rearranged and renovations are ever in progress, but the basic party structure remains healthy.

This is a paradox of the reform battles of recent years: how the erosion in the Buckley regulatory framework might persuade the Court to leave alone whatever is still standing. What really is the scale of the problem, they might ask? The prime actors of campaign finance have been busily working around the law. The reform community, partly stymied by the courts, has not been able to do much about it. The FEC has gone into hibernation, and it emerges only occasionally to exhibit paralysis. As a result, the prevailing view is that the parties may be restive under McCain-Feingold's strictures, and they are certainly disadvantaged in their competition with the "outside groups," but they are not on the verge of extinction. In fact, so it is believed, they're doing well enough, or at least better than expected.

To defend the post-McCain-Feingold version of campaign finance reform, proponents have taken special pains to say that it did not really hurt the political parties. They bounced back, engineered new ways to raise money, became perhaps even stronger. The soft-money the 2002 law took away from them has been replaced by other sources of funding. Online contributions have helped, and so has special new party fundraising authority enacted by Congress in the “Cromnibus.”

But even more important, according to this line of argument, is understanding what a political party is. It is not correct, on this view, to point to the formal institutional party organizations, but parties should be viewed instead as “networks” of allied entities. That would include, for example, interest groups sympathetic to Democrats or Republicans, Super PACs aligned with either major party (sometimes referred to as “shadow parties”), and even Fox or MSNBC.

Now the Campaign Finance Institute has put out new research and commentary in support of this picture of the parties. Having assembled data to show that Super PACs aligned with party interests spent large sums of money in 2016, the CFI declares that there is no cause to “bemoan” the weakness of parties. Parties have “rebounded”: they “have found a way to fight back” after the reforms and Citizens United.

And how did this happen? On this point, CFI words its position delicately. The parties’ recovery can be attributed in part to the “law’s permeability.” The unrestricted funding and spending of Super PACs "looks much like the soft-money the formal parties accepted before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA).”   There are advantages and disadvantages to this development. On the plus side, the "shadow party" PACs don’t have to pretend to be “issue advertising” and can spend on direct advocacy of their candidates. But, more negatively, they have to set up as “independent” of candidates or the institutional parties and cannot coordinate their spending with them.

The Transparency-Privacy Trade-Off (or Bargain)

September 13, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

The Brennan Center Report on the state of disclosure, “Secret Spending in the States,” usefully examines transparency policy issues presented by high-impact spending in low-information contests at the state and local level. It argues that dark money is not the only problem and focuses on the additional questions raised by "gray money" – –funding disclosed by reporting entities but received from organizations giving no indication of the interest or funding behind them. The Report then selects examples from various states of dark money and gray money controversies or issues. The Center sets out a program of reform and points to some progress made in the states.

The current divide over these reporting issues is so sharp that it is unlikely that the Center will immediately win over the usual skeptics. These skeptics’ complaint is that terms like “dark money” or “gray money” are highly charged but hopelessly vague, and that they are being used to justify proposed reforms that would impede the exercise of free speech rights. They are loathe to empower the government to do too much, and behind this is the conviction that government in the control of particular political interests will use disclosure to hound adversaries or subject them to public harassment.

But the skeptics might be surprised that the Brennan Center Report does not minimize the burdens and political risks of disclosure regimes. It argues for reasonable monetary thresholds, to keep the smaller contributions out of the public reports; for reasonable exemptions for especially vulnerable participants; and for "other reasonable accommodations" to allow donors to support organizations for charitable or social welfare purposes without falling within disclosure requirements that apply to the financing of political activities. In addition, the Center quite sensibly would have "[any] penalty for failure to disclose… fit the severity of the violation."

Disclosure Wars: Issues of Policies and Purposes

April 25, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Americans for Prosperity has won a decision blocking California’s demand for the disclosure of its donors.  The court didn’t agree with the State that it really needed the information to meet its regulatory responsibilities, and it was satisfied that AFP donors had reason to fear that disclosure would subject them to reprisal and harassment.  The State’s commitment to keep the information confidential did not survive the showing that it had not over time performed very well on that score.

There are concerns and conflicts running throughout this controversy, and others like it, that the court did not expressly acknowledge—but that are now common in cases of this kind.

Louisiana is arguing with the help of the indefatigable Jim Bopp that McCain-Feingold cannot limit “federal election activities”, such as GOTV and voter registration, that state and local parties conduct independently, without coordinating with their candidates. Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen reply in a brief filed as amici that this claim is clearly foreclosed by existing precedent: the soft money limits on state parties under McCain-Feingold are contribution limits, not spending limits, and there is no protection gained from claiming to conduct independently the activities paid with these contributions.

The litigating team representing these leading reform organizations is top-notch, and so it is not a surprise in reading their brief that they do a fine job with the materials at hand. But one also sees that there is a problem—not with the advocacy, but with the state of the law.