The Supreme Court Confirmation Argument, and Limits

February 3, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Now with the Gorsuch nomination there is another round of largely fruitless argument about the standards that Senators should use in advising and consenting on Supreme Court nominations – – or whether they should simply refuse to consent at all. It goes like this: each party has an obligation to put up for a vote or even consent to the confirmation of a nominee whose views are “mainstream.” The only exception is an election year, or so now say the Republicans to defend their refusal to take up the Garland nomination. This alleged election-year proviso has turned into volleys of “you did it, too”/ “no I did not,” with the Republicans implausibly insisting that they only refused to consider Judge Garland because they were exquisitely sensitive to an election-year precedent they claim that Joe Biden established.

Other than in an election year, and when the qualifications of the nominee are unchallenged, the disagreement is then mostly redirected into one about what constitutes “mainstream.” Given the choice facing them, Senators are virtually compelled to split on this question. Because the true problem here, discussed only obliquely, is the extraordinary power and ambitions of the Court whose members may, and typically now do, serve for many decades. Elections must have consequences, as the saying goes, but it useful to retain some common sense grip on how far the point has to be taken. Each opposition party will be hard-pressed to accept that, with its generously provided "consent,"  a president can strive to recast the constitutional law of the land for the next generation and beyond. Acceptance may be harder if the opposition is smarting from a “stolen seat,” or if it is concerned that a nominee is too much of an ideologue, or if the Court's balance will be immediately "tilted," but it is enough that the appointment is for a lifetime.

It’s conceivable that there is someone somewhere available for nomination who both parties would believe to be reliably moderate in his or her views--a difference-splitter whose decisions would please progressives one day and conservatives the next. But neither party will most of the time be inclined to take the chance. The moderate today could turn out tomorrow to have preferences that run more consistently in one direction. It cannot be known for that matter whether in a decade or more the nominee’s jurisprudential disposition will shift or undergo major transformation.

To imagine that moderation suffices as a standard is also to ignore the probability that a president has campaigned on a promise to nominate a candidate with dependable jurisprudential or ideological commitments. The very reason that he or she is moved to make such a promise returns the argument to the fundamental issue: voters perceive that the Court has an outsized role in the resolution of major and highly contested issues--that it is activist on issues they care deeply about, whether or not the activism is inspired by originalism or belief in a living constitution. A president, but also political opponents, will balk at urging supporters to have faith in a nominee identified as moderate and just hope it turns out all right. There is no chance of persuading them to take Alexander Hamilton’s stated view of the Court’s “comparative weakness,” or to share in his confidence that impeachment would be available to correct a mistake.

The New Free Speech Anxieties

January 18, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Independence Institute case, a challenge to the regulation of issues speech, has attracted a sizeable roster of amici in support of Supreme Court review. So far the line-up is largely conservative and libertarian, and yet, notably, the arguments are ones that in the Age of Polarization might also ---and should-- find an audience among progressives. The issue is the constitutional protection available for anonymous issues speech that a speaker, or an association of speakers, may engage in to limit the risk of reprisal or harassment.

For progressives as well as others, there are reasons to take this issue seriously: and some, pointing to Donald Trump, say he is the reason. Jim Rutenberg, reporting on Bill Maher’s belief that free speech may be under siege, writes this:

 It’s amazing how much anxiety Mr. Trump’s imminent inauguration is stirring in the free-speech business — but perhaps not surprising given his open hostility toward the press, his willingness to use his platform against any who cross him and his seemingly proud dismissal of the government and political norms that precede him. No one knows whether a year from now, we’ll see today’s fears as overblown, underblown, or on point.
These observations explain in part the general reluctance of progressives to take up the cause more formally. For them, the “anxiety…in the free speech business” has been triggered by the rise of Trump. But they cannot know what the future holds: maybe they will find their fears to be “overblown.” The problem may appear to them to be highly localized, to last only as long as the new president’s term in office. The New Normal could prove to be ephemeral.

If the world is returned to the Old Normal, progressives may then resume their standard advocacy of expansive disclosure of those funding, out of their own pocket or that of others, issue advocacy. They are motivated, properly, by the belief that political inequality should not be exacerbated by income inequality. They come to the issue from a long history of concern with issue speech being “sham,” much of it electoral speech in disguise.

But these commitments need not mean that progressives must surrender all support for anonymous issues speech, or make an exception only to address the challenge from a particular adversary. As the political scientist Bruce Cain wrote well before the 2016 election: “The argument for preserving the privacy of individual citizen identity for those who participate in constitutionally approved ways is strong if the goal is full participation and citizen autonomy.” Democracy, More or Less 54 (2015). Cain has suggested “semi-disclosure” to protect against the identification of individual contributors while making public other information in “census-like categories” about the sources of a candidate or political committee’s support. There has also been openness in some progressive circles to protecting the “small donor” by raising the threshold for the public disclosure of personal identifying information.

Are There Genuine Issue Ads or Just “Sheep’s Wool”?

December 2, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

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 Allure of Reform and A Modest Proposal

September 20, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Matt Grossman and David A Hopkins have pronounced many decades of liberal reform to be a failure. In a new book, they argue that the 1970s reform program did not lead to the success of liberal policies but may have been primarily advantageous to "ideological Republicans." For a party that is "a coalition of social groups, each with pragmatic policy concerns," the Democrats wound up undermining the transactional politics among various interests that would produce their preferred policy outcomes. Making matters worse was a shift of voter sentiment against government-driven solutions. The Republicans, happy to oblige the popular sentiment by blocking legislation, fared better than Democrats actually interested in passing it. Grossman and Hopkins conclude that in the future, Democrats "should assess whether each potential change is likely to benefit the Democratic coalition or the more ideological Republicans."

The problem always is the hazard of predicting the partisan or policy impact of any reform measure. To the extent that Grossman and Hopkins are urging Democrats to guess, they are necessarily allowing for the fairly large possibility that they will guess wrong. And even the ways in which they may be wrong are not anticipated all that reliably. In other words, both the benefits and the costs--the shape of success and the look of failure--will be very hard to judge. The mistakes made can be costly.

None of this would matter if those promoting reform could satisfy themselves that it satisfied other measures of success. For example, do those reforms enhance public confidence in the political process, or lessen the risk of corruption in government? Not so much, it seems, which is not to say that things would not be worse on this score without the reforms. But if it is true that reforms have contributed little to the success of the progressive policy agenda, the absence of other consolations, like a government that enjoys the public’s confidence, only compounds the sense of failure and dissatisfaction.

The Grossman/Hopkins argument tends to strengthen the case for targeted modest reforms that don't rest on ambitious expectations about policy or partisan effects. Rather than each party trying to game which reforms will serve their particular interests, they might collaborate on purging the current regulatory system of its inanities, inconsistencies and inefficiencies.

When the Law Can Seem a Bit Much, Mutch Explains

August 30, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

In this pre-Labor Day period when blogging will be light, here are a few notes:

1. Robert Mutch, who has written extensively about the history of campaign finance, has now published a guide to law and rules, Campaign Finance: What Everyone Needs to Know, just published by Oxford University Press. He means “everyone.” It is a citizen’s manual, with accessible explanations of abstruse statutory regulatory, and case law material, a chronology of major developments, and a glossary of key terms. He also provides throughout comments on the campaign finance reform debate. Mutch has a point of view on reform issues--who doesn’t?--but it is not harmful to his project. It adds a little zest to the discussion and more interest, therefore, for the general reader.  That reader has long deserved a resource like this, and here it is, courtesy of Robert Mutch.

2. That same general reader might want to puzzle over some of features of the well-worn law that is Mutch’s subject. An interesting case now on appeal to the Supreme Court, which goes by the name of a plaintiff with an unambiguous politics--Stop Reckless Economic Instability Caused by Democrats--questions why it is that political committees in existence for at least six months, so-called “multicandidate” committees, may give upon passing out of their infancy more to candidates but less to political parties (provided they also meet other minimal conditions on the level of support received and given).  The multi-candidate committee satisfying this 6-month waiting period can give a candidate another $2300 per election, for a total per election limit of $5,000. But its contributions to national and state parties are substantially cut from $32,400 to $5,000 and from $10,000 to $5,000, respectively.