Elections in America: Campaign Finance Reform

Mr. Robert Maguire did not express any opinions about what the future of campaign finance should be; he just presented the findings of his research. Likewise, Mr. O’Mara made it clear that his comments only reflect his personal opinion and not that of Congressman Sarbanes.

DSC_0259With the McCutcheon decision fresh in everyone’s minds, the panelists on our Campaign Finance panel had a lot to talk about. The discussion opened with Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics giving an overview of the effect of dark money. He explained that the amount of dark money that has been spent so far during this midterm election is four times higher than the amount that was spent up to this point during the 2012 cycle. To that put that in perspective: at the end of the 2012 cycle, a staggering $311 million had been spent in dark money. (If you are interested in Mr. Maguire’s entire presentation, you can view it here.) Lee Aitken, a former Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, also expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in today’s system of campaign financing. In particular, she drew attention to “shell companies” that enable campaign consultants to engage in “profiteering” and “self-dealing.” In essence, argued Ms. Aitken, anyone can set up an LLC in Delaware without having to disclose an owner/beneficiary and then use that company to funnel money.

Raymond O’Mara, Legislative Assistant to Congressman Sarbanes, turned the discussion to the implications of the McCutcheon decision and “the pernicious effect of money.” He noted that the Chief Justice’s notions of “gratitude” and “access” in the opinion did not properly capture the “dependence of Congress” on money. He explained that any “good staffer” ends up looking at both the (1) merits and (2) money associated with any proposal. Moreover, legislators are forced to spend hours fundraising on K Street and in party “call centers.” Mr. O’Mara also gave some insight into the Hill’s reaction to the McCutcheon decision – as soon as the decision came down, a task force within the House Democratic Caucus was conveyed. Those Members breathed a “sigh of collective disbelief” at the Court’s decision.

Commissioner Weintraub was equally critical of the decision. She noted, “[The Roberts Court] is less concerned with impediments to voting than with impediments to spending [at the top levels].” Moreover, she explained, “the average family could save up every single penny that they made for two years and give it to politicians, [and] all of that would still not bust the biennial limit” that was struck down in McCutcheon. In fact, according to Mr. Maguire, the decision only affects 646 Americans. No one else in the country has that kind of money to spend. Commissioner Weintraub also identified what she termed “sleights of hand” in the Chief Justice’s opinion. For example, she noted that his references to Edmund Burke were misplaced because the case concerned donors not constituents. And, she continued, “Many of these donors don’t live in the district.”

She also echoed Mr. O’Mara’s sentiment that the Chief Justice’s conception of “corruption” as being limited to quid-pro-quo corruption is too narrow. She noted that people who understand the impact of money on the system know that “bribery laws on their own don’t take care of all the corruption up there.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Weintraub ended the panel on a positive note, encouraging everyone to get involved. She implored, “Pay attention to what your government officials are doing and make your voice heard!”

 

 


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