Time for a One-Two Punch for Campaign Reform

By / 6.1.2010

In its recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions are entitled to the same First Amendment freedoms as flesh-and-blood human beings, thereby overturning decades of settled law limiting corporate influence in elections. With political analysts predicting a torrent of new spending by special interest groups in the fall elections, congressional leaders are advancing new legislation aimed at blunting the worst effects of the Supreme Court ruling.

Introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Mike Castle (R-DE), the DISCLOSE Act would place commonsense limits on corporate independent expenditures and require CEOs and major funders to take credit for the political ads they make. The legislation rightly restricts electioneering expenditures by corporations with a significant foreign ownership stake, as well as those that benefit from large-scale government contracts or bailouts. In addition, the legislation would greatly increase transparency and disclosure requirements on corporations, unions, trade associations and other incorporated entities, bipartisan measures that are in accordance with our long tradition of constitutionally protected disclosure.

While the design of specific provisions, including the appropriate threshold for government contractor restrictions, is open to debate, the DISCLOSE Act represents a necessary first step to stem the anticipated flood of special interest money post-Citizens United. Democratic leaders have promised swift action and a House vote on the legislation after the Memorial Day recess.

But Congress cannot content itself with incremental fixes to a system of special interest funding that’s rotten at the core. Fundamental reform of the nation’s pay-to-play system will not come by imposing new limits on private campaign spending, but by changing the very source of money that funds campaigns. Bipartisan legislation to establish a new system of citizen-funded elections has already gained the support of 175 members of Congress and dozens of grassroots organizations representing millions of concerned citizens from across the political spectrum.

Under the proposed Fair Elections Now Act, congressional candidates who attract a broad base of public support would be eligible to receive matching federal dollars if they agree to forego special interest money and raise only small donations from their constituents. A four-to-one match on in-state donations of $100 or less would ensure that serious, hardworking candidates have the funds they need to mount a competitive campaign, even when opposed by wealthy individuals or groups.

Indeed, academic analysis of the relationship between congressional campaign spending and election outcomes has consistently found a competitive spending threshold below which candidates are unable to effectively compete and above which additional spending produces negligible returns. Candidates running for the U.S. House between 1992 and 2006 required between $1 million and $1.5 million (in 2006 dollars) to mount competitive campaigns, while spending beyond that threshold did not measurably increase the likelihood of success.

By giving small donors an incentive to invest in political campaigns and rewarding candidates who demonstrate broad public support — regardless of wealth — such a reform has the potential to rein in undue influence by special interest groups and restore the public’s trust. And far from imposing new limits on political speech, the Fair Elections Now Act would expand free speech by enabling new voices to enter the political debate regardless of wealth.

Congress is presented with an historic opportunity to right the wrongs of an activist Supreme Court with a one-two punch for reform: by passing an evenhanded DISCLOSE Act to increase transparency and accountability on the part of corporate funders of political speech, and by passing the Fair Elections Now Act to ensure that elections for public office are owned by the American people, not wealthy special interests. Let’s hope they’re up for the fight.

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