Campaign finance reform advocates are worried they’ll see significant setbacks to their cause over the next four years, with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans poised to take control of Congress.
Trump mocked the influence of money in politics during the presidential campaign, claiming that giving candidates money means “they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” He needled his Republican primary rivals for their reliance on mega-donors and super PACs, and boasted of his financial independence from the muddy system. Other than Sen. Bernie Sanders, Trump might have been the presidential candidate most vocal about the potential corrupting influence of political money.
His regularly repeated lines about how the “system is rigged” and his intent to “drain the swamp” are concepts many liberals agree with, but Trump’s interpretation of these ideas—at least as evidenced so far during the presidential transition—has been haphazard. And Republicans in Congress now appear eager to roll back contribution limits that have been in place for decades.
“Trump talked about the problem, but he didn’t talk about solutions, other than he’s rich, so he can finance his own campaign, so it’s not a problem,” said Marge Baker, the executive vice president of People for the American Way.
During the campaign, Trump’s bomb-throwing at big donors and political money was never chased with concrete policy proposals. The only action Trump explicitly supported during the campaign was a repeal of the “Johnson Amendment,” which has been in place since 1954. A repeal would allow 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, to engage in political activity and make political contributions, opening the gates to a flood of new political money.
Given the new environment in D.C., groups that focus on limiting money in politics foresee themselves reduced to resisting the policies of the Republican-led Congress and the Trump administration, and turning their attention to the states, where opportunities to pass reforms will still remain.
“It looks like we’re going to have to do more work stopping the damage that people like Mitch McConnell would like to cause. But we’re not going to stop fighting for reform,” said Adam Bozzi, the communications director for the End Citizens United PAC.
Their most imminent priority in 2017 will be challenging Trump’s Cabinet nominations, and, farther down the road, challenging Trump’s eventual Supreme Court nominee, who is already expected to be a foe of campaign finance reform. Trump has awarded major campaign donors with plum Cabinet positions and named people to act as regulators of the same industries in which they work.
Reform groups note 2016 wasn’t a total loss. End Citizens United, a traditional PAC formed in 2015, raised more than $24 million this cycle, all from contributions of less than $5,000. They had an average contribution size of $14. Most of the candidates the PAC backed were unsuccessful this year, but the group is encouraged by the strength of the small-donor model. The group believes its fundraising success is a manifestation of voter frustration with money in politics, and Capitol Hill’s unwillingness or inability to do anything to rein it in.
More than 12 million people voted for state and local policies on Nov. 8 that changed state campaign finance laws. In Missouri, voters approved campaign donation limits for state candidates. South Dakota voters approved a lobbyist gift limit, and California and Washington passed referendums calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Many groups plan to keep working to change state and local finance and disclosure laws.
“We think that’s worth doubling down on,” said David Donnelly, the president of Every Voice Action.
Reform advocates are even hopeful they might be able to score unexpected victories in a one-party-ruled capital through an unconventional method: scandal.
“You never know when there will be a scandal or crisis or some kind of smoking gun that quickly catalyzes the need for reform,” said Aaron Scherb, the director of legislative affairs for Common Cause.
Scherb cited passage of the Stock Act in 2012 as an example of a reform measure that had been dormant for years until a 60 Minutes report revealed examples of insider trading by members of Congress. The measure quickly gained bipartisan support.
The dashed hopes among those groups don’t mean there won’t be any reforms at the national level in the next few years. But the reforms will be coming from Republicans, who are more likely to loosen restrictions than tighten them.
The prospect of looser federal campaign finance laws comes at a time when an overwhelming number of Americans think there is too much money in the political system. A 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 84 percent of Americans thought money has too big an influence on political campaigns. Respondents also ranked the influence of special-interest money as the main problem with politicians in D.C. in a Pew Research Center study last year.
Still, voters in November gave Republicans control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Senate Majority Leader McConnell, a prominent opponent of campaign finance restrictions, is likely to rekindle a proposal to eliminate limits on how much party committees can spend directly in coordination with candidates.
And within weeks of the elections, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina introduced a bill that aims to shift big donations away from super PACs and toward candidates by eliminating the current $2,700 individual donation limit for federal candidates, in exchange for requiring candidates to report donations more frequently.
While people in both parties have mixed feelings about super PACs, most liberals oppose the proposal, arguing it doesn’t solve the problem of major donor influence and could make members more susceptible to corruption.
“We’re happy to work with Senator Cruz if he does in fact care about disclosure, but trying to further empower millionaires and billionaires to do so is not the right vehicle for that,” Scherb said.