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 The soft-money the 2002 law took away from them has been replaced by other sources of funding.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 New York Times has carried two pieces in the last days on the Internet politics, each making a case for its contribution to degraded democracy. Michael Birnbaum writes about the influence of rightist websites in Europe as both the Netherlands and France head into national elections. Tom Edsall adds a thoughtful, more academic note, interviewing scholars and citing to various studies that generally reinforce a dark message about “democracy, disrupted.” The Edsall analysis also takes on the question of whether this disruption plays favorites, helping more the left or the right, and he concludes as follows:
There is good reason to think that the disruptive forces at work in the United States — as they expand the universe of the politically engaged and open the debate to millions who previously paid little or no attention — may do more to damage the left than strengthen it. In other words, just as the use of negative campaign ads and campaign finance loopholes to channel suspect contributions eventually became routine, so too will be the use of social media to confuse and mislead the electorate.This is a significant coupling of concerns about the uses of social media with two of the prominent planks in the campaign finance reform program. Edsall may mean that each disserves democracy in its own way, or that there is an interaction among these developments that is generally helpful to conservative, and inimical to progressive, politics.
What is also unclear is why these means are closely associated with a specified political end. For example, what is it about a “negative campaign ad” that is markedly more useful to the right-wing sponsor? There are times when the anger can be turned in the opposite direction, as Republican Members of Congress recently found in their town hall meetings; and this anger is finding expression through social media, on TV, and surely in the election to come, in negative campaign advertising. Those same angry progressive voices will be amplified only if the required funding is available. “Loopholes”--as some understand Super PACs or (c)(4) issue advocacy to be--will flourish on the left and right alike.
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).
The Louisiana Republican Party has enlisted Jim Bopp to mount a challenge to campaign finance restrictions on state political parties and so it is widely assumed that this is a Trojan Horse lawsuit with much wider significance for the survival of McCain-Feingold. And of course if the three-judge court, then eventually the Supreme Court, decide the case a certain way, it could well help doom the 1970’s reforms--if not immediately, then eventually. Rick Hasen, among others, has embraced the doomsday scenario, and the reform community has communicated to the three-judge court just this view of the stakes.
All of this may be true but this case and likely others to follow point to the costs of the bitter, stalemated discussion of campaign finance policy. Louisiana and its lawyers have a reasonable case against the regulatory burdens on state parties: they stress that the dissatisfaction with aspects of these rules is bipartisan. Thoughtful observers have concluded, as Brookings scholars recently did, that reforms are required.
But on this, as on other campaign finance issues, there is little likelihood of progress: no serious legislative engagement and, outside the Congress, a sharply divided political debate that mainly sorts out into hardline “reform” and “anti-reform” camps. The fight has largely moved to the courts, and from the reformers’ perspective, and with some uncertainty after Justice Scalia’s passing, this serves to put at risk the entire Buckley framework. But if the outcome there is muddled or inconclusive, what will continue is the slow, steady rot of a regulatory regime characterized by ambiguity, complexity and evasion. Neither of the alternatives is desirable.
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.