Democrats Prepare Major Campaign Finance Reform Push

An upcoming package of bills signals that incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer will focus on the issue.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Chuck Schumer are pushing a package of campaign finance reforms.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
May 25, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

Sen­ate Demo­crats want to boost the pro­file of cam­paign fin­ance re­form as the 2016 elec­tions draw closer.

They’re pre­par­ing to un­veil a wide-ran­ging pack­age of pro­pos­als to over­haul laws gov­ern­ing money in polit­ics and im­prove gov­ern­ment eth­ics, ac­cord­ing to sources on and off Cap­it­ol Hill.

Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, the in­com­ing lead­er of Sen­ate Demo­crats, is co­ordin­at­ing the ef­fort through the Demo­crat­ic Policy and Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mit­tee, said Sen. Shel­don White­house, one of the lead­ers of the ef­fort.

“The pur­pose is to re­spond to the pub­lic’s frus­tra­tion about a Con­gress that is jammed up by spe­cial in­terests and as a res­ult isn’t meet­ing the needs of the Amer­ic­an people,” White­house told Na­tion­al Journ­al in the Cap­it­ol.

The meas­ures are un­likely to ad­vance, giv­en the dwind­ling le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar and wide­spread GOP res­ist­ance to im­pos­ing ma­jor new reg­u­la­tions on polit­ic­al spend­ing.

But the elec­tion-sea­son ef­fort could help law­makers tap in­to voters’ in­terest on the top­ic, which has played a high-pro­file role in the cam­paign of Bernie Sanders.

It will of­fer Demo­crats, who are fight­ing to win back the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, a way to put Re­pub­lic­ans on the de­fens­ive polit­ic­ally over the role of money in polit­ics. The pack­age could also be a pre­view of what Demo­crats—led by Schu­mer—hope to do if they do cap­ture con­trol of the Sen­ate.

“The pres­id­en­tial elec­tions have shown that what used to be con­sidered ab­stract, pro­cess, in­side-base­ball stuff is res­on­at­ing in a way that it hasn’t for many, many years,” said Sen. Bri­an Schatz, a lib­er­al Demo­crat.

Schu­mer, asked by Na­tion­al Journ­al about the ef­fort, replied: “Stay tuned.”

“We be­lieve re­form is a very im­port­ant is­sue this year,” Schu­mer said in the Cap­it­ol on Wed­nes­day, not­ing that he meant “re­form in gen­er­al, in­clud­ing cam­paign fin­ance re­form.”

Law­makers say the spe­cif­ics of the pack­age are still be­ing worked out, and did not say when it would be un­veiled.

In the past, White­house has pushed the Dis­close Act, a meas­ure with wide sup­port among Demo­crats. It’s aimed at crack­ing down on so-called dark money by for­cing out­side groups to re­veal in­form­a­tion about their donors and activ­it­ies.

An­oth­er law­maker in­volved in the ef­fort, Sen. Tom Ud­all, has pre­vi­ously sponsored a meas­ure that would amend the Con­sti­tu­tion to over­turn the Su­preme Court’s 2010 Cit­izens United de­cision and oth­er rul­ings that have helped to open the floodgates for money in polit­ics.

Ud­all has also pro­posed a meas­ure that would re­place the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, which has been ham­strung by in­tern­al dis­putes, with a more ef­fect­ive watch­dog.

Ud­all’s of­fice de­clined to provide any spe­cif­ics on the up­com­ing pack­age, but the New Mex­ico Demo­crat said in a state­ment that “Amer­ic­ans are sick and tired of cor­por­a­tions and the su­per wealthy con­trolling our politi­cians and our elec­tions.

“I’m work­ing every way I can to re­form our cam­paign fin­ance sys­tem, over­turn Cit­izens United and shine a light on bil­lion­aire donors hid­ing in dark corners—so we can get money out of polit­ics,” he said.

Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill said the ef­fort also ad­dresses eth­ics re­forms and voter-par­ti­cip­a­tion is­sues.

One pro­pos­al that’s likely in the mix is Sen. Tammy Bald­win’s Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Con­flict of In­terest Act, a plan that Hil­lary Clin­ton has en­dorsed.

It re­stricts people from get­ting bo­nuses from private-sec­tor com­pan­ies when they enter gov­ern­ment; cre­ates new safe­guards against fin­an­cial-ser­vices reg­u­lat­ors us­ing their po­s­i­tions to be­ne­fit former em­ploy­ers or cli­ents; and places new lim­its on reg­u­lat­ors’ post-gov­ern­ment lob­by­ing and work for fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

Bald­win told Na­tion­al Journ­al that she has dis­cussed the le­gis­la­tion with Schu­mer, and sug­ges­ted that he was sup­port­ive. Asked if Schu­mer was on board, Bald­win said: “We are talk­ing about a lar­ger re­form pack­age, and I ex­pect that you will see it in­cluded.”

The ef­fort ar­rives amid a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign sea­son that has re­newed at­ten­tion to cam­paign fin­ance, in large part be­cause a cent­ral pil­lar of the Sanders cam­paign has been his ar­gu­ment that bil­lion­aires and cor­por­a­tions con­trol the polit­ic­al sys­tem and un­duly in­flu­ence poli­cy­mak­ing.

Sanders and Clin­ton have both said they would ap­point Su­preme Court justices who op­pose Cit­izens United, and both sup­port the long-shot idea of a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to over­turn the de­cision.

Both also sup­port an ar­ray of oth­er meas­ures to im­pose new reg­u­la­tions on money in polit­ics, boost dis­clos­ure, em­power small donors (who have greatly aided Sanders), and ex­pand and strengthen vot­ing rights.

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