Foreign National Influence, Foreign National Interference

December 15, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

In 1968, the Nixon presidential campaign successfully persuaded the South Vietnamese government to scuttle peace talks with the North. The goal was to end any possibility of an election-eve accord that would boost the prospects of the Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Candidate Nixon and his agents assured the South Vietnamese, who took the deal, that a Nixon presidency would better protect their interests. This was a glaring case of foreign interference with elections. The election turned out to be close and the intervention was very plausibly a factor in the outcome. See, e.g., Tim Weiner, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon 19-26 (2015).

This is the kind of “interference” in an election that Congress is preparing to investigate. It remains to be seen whether the inquiry will eventually become more far-ranging-- whether it will also examine other forms of foreign influence over the electoral and policy processes that are less brazen but still consequential.

For example, the Federal Election Commission recently could not agree on strengthened restrictions on campaign spending that serves foreign interests. Foreign nationals are prohibited generally from making contributions or expenditures in federal elections, but the rules are porous. Companies controlled by foreign nationals, including those directly or indirectly controlled by foreign governments, may establish PACs and fund campaigns with money contributed by their American executives. The law prohibits foreign nationals associated with the ownership or management of the company from directing or indirectly participating in these funding decisions. The enforcement challenge is obvious: how to capture this “participation,” which may include oral directives or suggestions that are not easily discovered. Beyond this, Americans in the employ of the wholly controlled USA subsidiary might guide their funding decisions by close reference to what they believe or know to be their foreign owners’ interests and preferences.

The Omnibus and the Direction of the Reform Debate

December 17, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The agreement apparently reached on the omnibus omits some campaign finance related items but includes others.  The party coordinated spending limits remain in place, while there are provisions blocking IRS and SEC action in the next year to promulgate political spending disclosure rules. For reformers, the results are decidedly mixed, and they are both relieved and exasperated.  And for them and all others, there is also the question of whether this development suggests anything else about the choices faced in the reform debate.

Republishing Romney

December 14, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The Campaign Legal Center was pleased that the Federal Election Commission had fined the independent Romney Super PAC for republishing a Romney campaign video, but it was disappointed that the penalty, $50,000, was low.  Still, there was enforcement, as my colleague Marc Elias pointed out on Twitter.

It is a mixed triumph for the FEC.  The agency got its settlement and collected a fine but also agreed with the Romney Super PAC that the law being applied had been unsettled and that PAC counsel had adopted a reasonable legal position in the absence of a clear rule or established interpretation.

Maybe the agency was being circumspect, paying its respects to the Romney PAC legal position as needed to induce a negotiated settlement.  But the public record now contains an enforcement action in which the agency imposed a penalty for what it characterized as a reasonable legal position on an open question under the law.