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).
The Brennan Center’s Daniel Weiner has called on the reform community to engage in self-examination and consider the changes that, in the light of the experience of this last election, are now due. He notes that money did not play the expected role, and that the role it did play, as in the case of Super PACs, underscores the imbalance between them and the political parties. He suggests that campaign finance reform could include additional liberalization of party financing. Weiner would proceed cautiously--he is not giving up on the Buckley regulatory model--but he and his colleagues at the Center have commendably tried to open up a wider, fresher discussion of reform alternatives.
But this may be the key sentence of his essay:
Finally, we should also be asking how campaign finance reform relates to the broader constellation of proposals to create a democracy that works for everyone. So many aspects of the 2016 election are deeply troubling, including documented voter suppression, the ongoing effects of partisan gerrymandering, and — at least for some — the fact that the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college for the second time in under two decades. They call for solutions rooted in the same values of fairness, accountability, and inclusion that animate the strongest campaign finance reform ideas. It would be a great mistake to silo the latter from the broader push for a more just and equitable political system.Weiner would have the reform enterprise be integrated--the campaign finance part would fit with the others. There would be no “silo,” in which, as one reformer once described another’s preoccupation with money-in-politics, campaign finance is THE thing. Campaign finance would have its place within a scheme of reform that is unified around the themes of fairness, accountability and inclusion. This is the shape of reform as Weiner envisions it in the “age of Trump.”
Missing from these otherwise sensible criteria for reform are the requirements of mobilization, of effective political action. To insist that reform’s design must take into account the needs of political association and activism is not to consign to a lower rung, or to read out of the plan altogether, the values of "fairness, accountability and inclusion.” But at a time when progressives are sobered by the looming contest over large questions of national values and policy, a reform compatible with the needs of an energetic politics seems fairly urgent.
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.
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."