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Where They Stand: Campaign finance reform an issue with some clear bipartisanship



Monitor staff
Tuesday, February 09, 2016
There’s at least one issue that candidates of both parties can agree on – at least to some degree. It’s tempering the way money influences politics in Washington.

The Democrats are talking about it as loud as ever. Both candidates have published agendas of reforms they’d like to enact.

In general, the Republicans aren’t as keen on some of those proposals, but each candidate supports at least one pillar of the reform platform.

The New Hampshire Rebellion, a local group that has been pressing candidates on the issue of money in politics, released last month a scorecard detailing the positions they’ve nailed down at town halls and public events.

Democrats fared better than their Republican counterparts, but they’ve all done better at “talking the talk” than “walking the walk,” according to the scorecard.

‘A live issue’

Dan Weeks, the executive director of New Hampshire Rebellion, said pressure from local activists has helped increase the profile of this issue to where it can’t be ignored.

“We’ve moved from almost non-issue status – way down low on the issue of public priorities – to we have made this, I think, a live issue in the presidential election and in other elections,” he said last month. “I think that’s evidenced by all three Democrats came out with plans, the first time we’ve actually had plans from candidates.”

The prominence of his issue was reinforced by an Every Voice poll in Iowa released last week. Sixty-four percent of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers, it found, ranked money in politics among the top three issues on their minds. One in four said it was the No. 1 issue, according to the poll of Democrats.

While the effects money in politics have been on the minds of voters for years, reform has rarely been their top priority.

Dark money

Perhaps the loudest point that Democrats have made, especially Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is about the way the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowed money from unknown sources to pour into elections.

On the question of whether corporations and labor unions should be able to spend unlimited sums advocating for or against candidates and issues, many Republicans see it as a question of free speech protected by the First Amendment – as did the Supreme Court.

But the court couldn’t have understood the current reality, in which money to be used influencing politics is funneled through nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors, said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and campaign finance reformer.

“The Supreme Court didn’t even realize there was the dark money loophole. The court explicitly said all this stuff would be disclosed. That means it either was lying or it didn’t understand the way (501(c)4s) interacted with super PACs,” Lessig said.

This led to a point of widespread agreement between the two parties: Every major candidate for president agrees there should be increased transparency for political spenders to disclose their funding sources, according to the New Hampshire Rebellion’s findings.

Citizens United

All the Democrats have said they’d like to overturn Citizens United and ban super PACs as they exist now, although that’s a lofty goal that would take a constitutional amendment or a different makeup of the Supreme Court.

Still, there is agreement among some Republicans as well. Donald Trump and some lesser-known and former candidates, Lindsey Graham and Jim Gilmore, supported a constitutional amendment to overturn the controversial ruling.

On public funding of campaigns, a concept that Democrats support, there has also been some crossover, especially among the candidates who had the hardest time getting name recognition.

Gilmore and former candidate George Pataki supported citizen funding of campaigns, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich remained vague but signaled some interest in tax-deductible small-dollar donations, Weeks said.

Trump remained mum on the question of publicly funding elections, according to the report, but prominently maligned the campaign funding system in the first Republican debate last year.

“Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody,” he said at the time. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”

Trump’s stand reinforced a storyline that became part of his identity as a candidate: that since he can fund his own campaign, he isn’t bought and paid for like the others.

Another point on which every candidate who answered the question agreed involved lobbying regulations. The proposed reform would limit former legislators from going directly into lobbying jobs and would limit government contractors from paying for lobbyists.

Promises kept?

Weeks said he hopes efforts to get candidates on the record about these issues will translate into meaningful problem-solving once they reach office.

“You can’t solve a problem which has not be acknowledged as such in the first place,” he said. “Finally the problem has been acknowledged as a major problem and candidates are beginning to come out in favor of solutions.”

But he said he’s not satisfied resting on what his group has done so far.

“New Hampshire is more the opening bid than the closing statement in this campaign,” he said.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)