July 17, 2012 is the date set for the hearing to examine pending constitutional proposals to remedy the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has asked Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to hold the hearing. A number of constitutional amendments have been introduced and will be examined during the hearing.
The most comprehensive and effective is The Fair Elections Now Act (S. 750 and H.R. 1404). The bill would allow federal candidates to choose to run for office without relying on large contributions, big money bundlers, or donations from lobbyists, and thus freeing them from the constant fundraising so they can better focus on what their constituents want. Essentially the bill creates a voluntary system that gives congressional candidates who agree not to take large contributions to run competitive campaigns by matching small contributions of $100 or less from a Fair Elections Fund, paid for without raising taxes. In fact, redirecting our taxpayer dollars from the duopoly conventions to public financing of political campaigns would start the balance in the Fair Elections Fund at $36.5 million. Unbelievably, as of May 3, the Republican and Democratic parties have each received checks from the U.S. Treasury for a total of $36.5 million to be spent on their conventions in Charlotte and Tampa this summer.
The widely-accepted perception is that this bill has no chance and all expectations are for it to be “shelved” during this hearing, just as it was in 2010. The stark reality is that this bill was introduced in March, 2009, and went on to eventually pass the Committee on House Administration in the U.S. House of Representatives on September 23, 2010. Unfortunately, the bill was shuffled around through December, 2010, but never went to vote. It was re-introduced in 2011 in the Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and in the House of Representatives by Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.), and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
The DISCLOSE act is a bill expected to actually receive consideration on July 17, 2012. This bill involves the disclosure of campaign donors so that citizens know who is paying for political ads. Outside groups would be required to file a report with the Federal Elections Commission disclosing any donors over $10,000.
A word of caution is due regarding the effectiveness of the FEC. The commission consists of six members, three Democrats and three Republicans, nominated by their respective parties. Because that’s an even number, no ruling can have effect unless it gets at least a 4-2 vote. Getting that fourth vote is often impossible. Congress obviously has a selfish interest in preventing any reform of the FEC; after all, members are the targets of enforcement actions. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a petition calling on President Obama to fix the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by appointing new commissioners. The president had promised to respond to any petition on the ‘We the People’ section of the White House website with at least 25,000 signatures and CREW gathered over 27,000 by February 10, 2010. We are still waiting for a response. Any campaign finance regulation is worthless without an enforcement agency.
Campaign finance reform is a lightening rod issue for partisan politics. This week The Hill reports that McCain (R-Ariz.) is talking with Democrats about a joint effort on the DISCLOSE act. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, who worked closely with McCain to pass the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, said “My assumption has been, for all the political capital he spent on McCain-Feingold, he felt he did not get rewarded when he ran against Obama,” referring to the 2008 presidential race. “Why should he put all his political capital in this when it didn’t serve him as expected?” she said. It is possible that if McCain gets behind the bill, other Republicans would come on board.
The polling data does not reflect that the American voters are as partisan on this issue though. A week before the general election in 2010 when Tea Party activists were in full swing, Tea Party supporters favored Fair Elections 49 percent to 35 percent, a strong double-digit margin for such a conservative group. A majority of them, 63%, agreed with the following statement:
“The amount of money being spent this year on political campaign ads by candidates, political parties, and outside groups poses a real threat to the fairness of our elections and the ability of Congress to get results on our most important issues.”
In this poll, voters of all political persuasions were asked about their preference on campaign finance reform. The Fair Elections approach was favored by 43 percent of voters compared to 36 percent for the DISCLOSE approach. The Fair Elections Now Act was supported by 64 percent of voters (44 percent “strongly”) with just 20 percent opposed and 15 percent undecided. During the year and a half since this poll, awareness among the American public on the issue of money in politics has significantly increased. A poll now might reflect an even higher percentage of favorability for Fair Elections.
Please keep in mind that the Fair Elections Now Act does not eliminate our current campaign finance system for elections. The bill simply introduces another avenue for candidates to choose to utilize. If the root of the problem is indeed money in politics and we are committed to releasing the financial-influence-stranglehold of the few on the will and concern of the people, then settling for a discussion on disclosure of the donors giving more than $10,000 is not an option. Accepting a transparency tweak to a completely flawed system is not an option. We must try something different to get a different result.
Expressing support for this bill to the members of the subcommittee prior to July 17th is the only hope we citizens have for its continuance in the legislative process. If communication is not sufficient, this subcommittee will certainly determine on July 17th not to pursue it further. In less than 60 days, our opportunity to significantly impact the crux of all our political problems will come and go. There are only 11 members – less than a dozen people — who will evaluate the viability of this bill:
Dick Durbin, Illinois (Chairman)
Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont
Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island
Al Franken, Minnesota
Christopher A. Coons, Delaware
Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut
Lindsey Graham, S.C. (Ranking Member)
Jon Kyl, Arizona
John Cornyn, Texas
Michael S. Lee, Utah
Tom Coburn, Oklahoma