Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Face Grim Future

The next four years could be bleak for those who want to limit the influence of money in politics.

Donald Trump with PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Apple CEO Tim Cook at Trump Tower on Wednesday
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Dec. 14, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.

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