14 Things We Learned About Money in Politics in 2014

December 16, 2014

It’s not a pretty picture, although there was some movement for transparency.

14. Shortly after being reelected in the most expensive Senate race in Kentucky’s history as well as the most expensive in the 2014 cycle, in-coming majority leader Senator Mitch McConnell succeeded in loosening existing campaign finance laws. This was on top of his successful effort to strip out public financing for political conventions, a post-Watergate reform. Incidentally, McConnell broke the record set by McConnell for the most money raised in a previous Kentucky Senate race.

13. The IRS started a rule-making (IRS REG–134417–13) which could have clarified exactly what counts for tax purposes as “candidate-related political activity.” After being roundly criticized in over 100,000 public comments, the IRS decided to scrap the rule and go back to the drawing board. The Bright Lines Project, among others, hopes the IRS gets back to this rule sooner rather than later.

12. The FCC expanded access to its political files by placing them on-line.  This started in 2012 in the 50 biggest media markets. In July 2014 the rule was expanded to all broadcast television stations. The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and Sunlight Foundation filed a petition asking for the FCC to expand the rule to cover cable and satellite as well.

11. Grassroots walks in New Hampshire and Florida help to raise awareness of political corruption. In November 2014 Rhana Bazzini, a 81-year old, walked from her home in Sarasota to Tallahassee (350 miles) in honor of Granny D. who also walked across the nation to inspire changes in campaign finance reform. The New Hampshire Rebellion walked in January 2014 from Dixville Notch to the south of the state urging politicians to address the issue of money in politics. They are marching again in January 2015.

10. In February, the Supreme Court was videotaped from inside as a protester named Kai Newkirk objected to 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC. He said, “I rise on behalf of the vast majority of the American people who believe that money is not speech, corporations are not people, and our democracy should not be for sale to the highest bidder. Overturn Citizens United.”  Later transcripts are purged of the incident and the protester was sentenced to time served.

9. The effort to enact “Fair Elex” (also known as public financing for state elections) failed in New York State in April. But the failure did inspire Forham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout to run for governor. She got over 34 percent of the vote in the New York Democratic Primary running on an anti-corruption platform as well as carrying 30 counties. As The Washington Post noted, Cuomo spent 40 times as much per vote as Professor Teachout did for hers.

8. In November in Tallahassee the left and the right got together to pass a municipal anti-corruption reform package based on the federal American Anti-Corruption Act bill, which includes public financing, campaign money disclosure and ethics reforms.

7. There was a massive exodus from the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, after civil rights, consumers, and shareholders complained. According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch, support for ALEC dropped 19 percent in 2014. The “#ALECExodus” as it is known on Twitter included AOL, Google, Yahoo!Yelp, Facebook and even former ALEC chair SAP America left because of ALEC’s positions on climate change, opposition to renewable energy, its position on gun safety and its attacks on voter rights.

6. Shareholders continued to demand transparency of corporate political spending. The majority of shareholders at five publicly traded companies voted for more transparency of corporate political activities.  At Sallie MaeLorillard and at Valero Energy, a majority voted for disclosure of lobbying — and at Dean Foods and at Smith & Wesson, a majority voted for disclosure of campaign spending. There was also a squeaker at Duke Energy were over 49 percent voted for disclosure of campaign spending.

5. In September 2014, the effort to get the SEC to promulgate a new rule requiring disclosure of political spending by publicly traded companies hit a new milestone: one million comments were filed asking for a new rule. Now the total is roughly 1.25 million comments. But the SEC has not added the rule making to its regulatory agenda.

4. There was a big win against the FEC’s loophole riddled electioneering communications rule in November in Van Hollen v. FEC II. This rule is partially to blame for the dark money problem in federal elections. As the judge in that case concluded, “the fact that some contributors ‘just don’t want their names known’ does not provide grounds to override a clear Congressional choice in favor of transparency.”

3. The trial of ex-Governor of Virginia and ex-First Lady of Virginia produced all sorts of fireworks in a Richmond,Virginia courtroom this summer. The McDonnells were found guilty of selling official acts to a businessman despite their lawyers attempt to use Citizens United and McCutcheon as a defense. Her sentencing has been pushed back to February of 2015 though the judge did throw out a conviction on one count against Maureen McDonnell in December. Mr. McDonnell’s sentence is expected in January 2015.

2. Spending in the 2014 congressional election broke records for the most expensive midterm in history estimated at $3.6 billion according to OpenSecrets.org. This included $689 million of outside spending including $154 million in untraceable dark money. According to FollowtheMoney.org, $2.2 billion was spent in state elections in the 2014 cycle which included the election of 36 governors.

1. The Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. FEC did more than just free wealthy spenders to give over $3.5 million to all federal candidates from one party in each election cycle, the Court also for the first time explicitly overruled part of Buckley v. Valeo which had survived intact for nearly 40 years. The decision spurred peaceful protests from the steps of the Supreme Court to as far away as Hawaii. McCutcheon may presage even more deregulation of campaign finance next year. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.