FEC Commissioner Ravel came to town with every intention to make change and left in a state of disillusionment. She aspired to build fences and ran into a wall: The Republicans had no interest in cooperating in a progressive reform program, not even bringing “dark money” into the light. The Commissioner then took her case public, before the sympathetic audiences in the media, but this was a dead end. Republican Commissioners are not moved by op-eds in the New York Times. By the time of her resignation yesterday, Commissioner Ravel had made her name by stressing the pointlessness of expecting anything from her agency. She may have made little headway in advancing the cause of transparency in campaign finance, but she was very clear about her own views.
Her letter of resignation is a parting expression of her commitment to strengthened enforcement of campaign finance laws. It is also a last testament to the futility of her quest. She refers to various statements the President has made about the broken campaign finance system and urges him to prioritize reform among his domestic initiatives. Of course, Mitch McConnell runs the Senate and there is no chance of his agreement to the program she advocates of ending “dark money,” reversing Citizens United, public finance and a reinvigorated FEC.
The president to which she made this last appeal may or may not have meant what he said about campaign finance. He was a billionaire candidate who could spend freely: his “money in politics” was not restricted. But he did not win by swamping his foes with superior resources. Candidates with plenty of campaign money, like Jeb Bush, failed early. On the subject of election law, this president seems far more motivated by his belief in “voter fraud.”
In a first step out on political reform (setting aside his executive order on lobbying), Donald Trump promised churches he would relieve them of the restrictions of the Johnson amendment on campaign activity. He didn't go into any detail.
But over time there have been different proposals for protecting religious institutions’ political speech. One of them is arguably sensible, while another, more aggressive reform of this nature is best avoided.
Attention began to turn more widely to this topic when in the Bush 43 years there was a suggestion that IRS was monitoring sermons and prepared to act against churches where it found campaign content in speech from the pulpit. A notorious case involved a sermon that was critical of the war in Iraq and included favorable comments about Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and critical ones of his opponent George W. Bush. Nothing happened; the IRS backed off. But it remains the case that while the Service seems to have no particular appetite for regulatory action based on this kind of speech, it could, if it wished. And as the Bush/Kerry episode revealed, the issue can cut in either partisan or ideological direction.
That is one issue, and a reform has been advanced to address it. Its sole point would be to allow for speech in the ordinary course of communications by a religious institution. In 2013, an organization called the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations recommended that religious institutions be free to make communications "related to one or more political candidates or campaigns... made in the ordinary course of… regular and customary… exempt purposes," provided that the expenses incurred are de minimis. The exemption would apply specifically to sermons delivered "as part of a religious organization's regular and customary worship services."
Progressives thinking about the experience with reform have to grapple with its implications for mobilization, for effective political speech and action. As previously noted here, one traditional reform objective – – regulating issue advertising – – bears reconsideration For years, a priority has been to expand the rules to cover certain issue advertising within election seasons. The authors of McCain Feingold settled on what they took to be an objective test--define the election season as a month to two months before an election, and then capture within reporting requirements ads that simply” refer” to a candidate and are directed to his or her electorate. The ads affected would surely be “sham” ads, intended to influence the election, and disclosure of the financing of these “electioneering communications” would be appropriate, as it is in the case of clear-cut campaign advertising.
But is there such a thing as a genuine issue ad--one that is designed to discuss candidates in relation to issues but without, within the four corners of the ad, expressly calling for the candidate’s election or defeat? Or to put it in doctrinal terms, may the government reporting rules reach ads that do not involve either express electoral advocacy or its “functional equivalent”? The Court in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission took it more or less for granted that genuine issue ads would not be subject to mandatory disclosure. 540 U.S. 93, 206 n.88 (2003) (“ [W]e assume that the interests that justify the regulation of campaign speech might not apply to the regulation of genuine issue ads").
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court devoted a line to the seemingly contrary conclusion, suggesting in the most general terms that "the public has an interest in knowing who was speaking about a candidate shortly before an election." Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310, 369 (2010). But its discussion on this point was short, and it also appeared in a case that involved a communication--a movie--that was plainly intended to influence voter choice. It was decidedly not a case about “genuine” issues speech.
The Independence Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization, has pressed on this issue with a challenge to the application of the reporting rules to an ad lacking either express advocacy or its functional equivalent--i.e. a "genuine issue ad.” The ad named two Senators, one running for election, in appealing for support of pending legislation on criminal justice reform. A three-judge district court last month rejected the claim that the ad was constitutionally protected. The Court relied on the language of Citizens United. It appeared satisfied that even in the case of a genuine issue ad, a reference to a candidate was sufficient to trigger the electioneering communication disclosure requirements. Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission, No. 14-cv-1500, 2016 WL656396 (D.D.C. November 3, 2016).
With two elections within sixteen years won by the candidate who lost the popular vote, it is a natural turn that the Electoral College moves higher on the reform agenda. There remain other items for consideration: the state of the political parties, campaign finance, and voting rights. The question is: in what ways will the substance of reform, and its timing or tactics, be affected by the outcome of this election?
1. Attention to the Electoral College is now heightened at a time of mounting impatience with the other ways in which the electoral process deviates from the expectation that the most votes should decide. James Ceaser has correctly said that we've arrived at the point in our political culture that it is, if not unthinkable, difficult in the extreme to stand against the principle that the person with the most votes wins. So Republican leadership balked at any program to stop Trump at least in part because they struggled to explain how the nomination could somehow be denied to the candidate in a field of 17 who won by far the most contests and the most votes. The Democrats have run into similar problems with the role of super-delegates.
The case against the Electoral College is strengthened considerably by this strong trend in popular expectation. Whether we will see sustained momentum for reform is a different question.
2. Meanwhile, what about the parties? Ezra Klein has come to the view that parties may be weak but partisanship runs high, and that this complicated combination explains a good bit of what some see to have gone wrong with the nominating processes. Parties do not mediate voter choice: it is not accepted that they should step in against the candidates the voters favor and compel an alternative choice presented as superior in experience, governing credentials, or electability. So the voters decide, and once they have decided, the parties and their partisan fall into line. As Klein explains it, this is the worst of all worlds: weak parties, high partisanship.
The absence of strong parties on the traditional model has been keenly felt in this way, and perhaps in other less visible ones. For example, candidates now rely upon polling data to shape strategy and to adjust as necessary to changed political conditions. All of this is done at headquarters, shaped by sophisticated analytics. And the analytics are highly advanced. A modern campaign cannot operate without them. But genuinely strong parties are built on something more. They would have good intelligence "on the ground" delivered by seasoned party officials and operatives. The state and local party would speak authoritatively on local conditions. It pick up quickly on changes in those conditions not easily accessible through polling.
A partial picture of campaign finance in 2016, with much still to learn, suggests that the fully rounded-out version may feature surprises and interesting twists. It will certainly influence, perhaps even redirect, the debate over reform.
The aggressively "outsider" Republican nominee is relying on the party apparatus to fund the basics of his campaign. Trump is succeeding with on-line fundraising, as one might expect from outsiders, but it is not enough without the party doing, or attempting to do, what is needed. How well will the party do? Meanwhile, the Super PACs have been slow to extend their support to this candidate of self-declared if disputed wealth: while this may change in the weeks ahead, the wealthy have so far declined to shower their funds on this candidacy, instead putting much of their resources into congressional races.
On the Democratic side, the Super PACs are active: the Washington Post’s Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy find that “once-reluctant Democrats have fully embraced” these entities as key requirements for being competitive. In the primaries, however, these PACs were a point of controversy and small donors financed an insurgent, outsider candidacy that was fully competitive with what the front-running candidate from within the party could muster. Meanwhile, while the rallying cry for reform remains Citizens United, the most prominent money behind the Super PACs money is individual and not corporate.
Any year can present in unusual fashion and it is hazardous to put too much weight on the experience with presidential elections or to overgeneralize from it. But in the months ahead, it is an experience that will be cited and argued over, and it will have its effect. One conclusion drawn may well be that we still don't know how the crazy-quilt campaign finance system influences the politics of the campaigns—favoring or disfavoring parties, opening (through the Internet) or narrowing (through the Super PACs) participation, exacerbating or balanced out incumbent advantage.
Beyond these considerations are the venerable reform objectives of controlling corruption and promoting equality. Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker speculates about the implications of a Clinton victory for the confirmation of a new Justice and a new Supreme Court majority willing to revisit Citizens United. He asked Pam Karlan and Heather Gerken for their views and each splashes cold water on any excessive optimism that the court, even if it changed course, would make much of a difference to the accomplishment of traditional reform objectives.
Professor Karlan suggests that while Citizens United is a “shorthand” for the role of money in politics, that decision has little to do with the problem seen in campaign finance and its demise will not solve it. Professor Gerken does not go that far, but she does not see the Court as the prime mover in reform. Congress would have to act first, regulating Super PACs and other “shadow” groups, and she doubts that it will.