The Influence Industry: Advocates at odds over how to tighten campaign finance rules

November 21, 2012

After record spending on the 2012 election, many advocates for tighter regulation of money in politics are agitating for a big overhaul of campaign finance rules.

They just can’t seem to agree on what that overhaul should include.

There are no less than four proposals to fund campaigns with public money, and each has at least one well-organized advocacy group behind it. Some of the same advocates and allied lawmakers are also pushing for tightened disclosure of interest-group spending. And other activists are trying to amend the Constitution to restrict such outside spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010.

The cost of elections has continued to rise for more than a decade, along with the amount of time that candidates and officeholders spend raising money. In the wake of the court decision, there has been especially rapid growth in spending by interest groups. That has left lawmakers in both parties uncomfortable because they can be easily outspent by outside forces with little warning.

But most Republicans balk at using taxpayer money for campaigns and favor a different type of reform, proposing to raise — or eliminate — the cap on contributions to a candidate’s campaign, currently set at $2,500. With Republicans in control of the House and able to block legislation in the Senate, the chances of passing any public-funding measure are slim.

But even with the potential roadblocks, one prominent advocate says the discussion about tightening the rules is moving too fast.

“We don’t need to end this debate right now,” Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, said at a conference on campaign finance reform Saturday. “We have to make sure that the insider reformers don’t sell us out — don’t sell us out too soon for tiny little reforms.”

In particular, Lessig has criticized the group Democracy 21 and its founder, Fred Wertheimer, who has been involved in the debate over money in politics since the Watergate era, for pushing their proposal to the exclusion of others. Lessig wants a wide-ranging debate until the time is right to bring a major change to the system, and he says that won’t happen until the issue is debated in an election campaign.

Wertheimer, by contrast, is hoping to build a consensus as soon as possible. “We would like to see if there could be one bill introduced shortly after the next Congress begins,” he said, calling the controversy “rather surprising.”

Wertheimer helped craft a measure, introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), that would provide a match for the first $250 of all contributions, with $5 of public money for each dollar donated. The idea is to encourage candidates to seek out grass-roots donors who give money without angling for access or special favors.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) introduced a bill with a similar multiple match, adding a $100 tax credit for people who make political contributions. An older bill would allow candidates to voluntarily limit individual contributions to $100 each in return for a grant and matching funds for a qualifying amount of small donations.

And a new group is pushing for the American Anti-Corruption Act, which includes a tax credit and tightens rules on lobbying and disclosure. Instead of going straight to Capitol Hill, the group has launched online promotional videos and a Web site, www.represent.us, in hopes of getting 1 million citizen supporters.

None of these proposals would reduce the amount of money in politics, however. They focus on changing the type of money that candidates collect, but campaigns will still need to spend ever-increasing amounts to compete with interest groups able to spend unlimited amounts under the Citizens United decision.

That’s why the Move to Amend coalition is hoping to make an end run around the Supreme Court by pushing to amend the Constitution in a way that would limit interest-group spending. It’s an ambitious, long-term plan.

A legislative change is easier, but it won’t happen quickly — if at all. The last major reform effort, nicknamed McCain-Feingold for its two Senate sponsors, was the culmination of more than 15 years of debate.

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