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13 Things We Learned about Money in Politics in 2013

For a federal election off year, 2013 saw an enormous amount of upheaval in campaign finance law and regulation. Here’s some of what happened, from McCutcheon to the Moreland Commission.

December 16, 2013

For a federal election off year, 2013 saw an enormous amount of upheaval in campaign finance law and regulation. Here’s some of what happened. (Note: This is an admittedly non-exhaustive list.) 

13. The U.S. House of Representative kept trying to dismantle the presidential public financing system. This post-Watergate reform was used by presidential candidates for decades, including by Republican nominee John McCain in the 2008 general election. However, after Citizens United in 2010, no front runner has used the fund, which makes it vulnerable to calls to end it instead of amend it as suggested by reform groups like Democracy 21.

12. The dark money churn of transfers among politically active nonprofits was revealed by Opensecrets.org's analysis of nonprofit tax returns. They found that of $274 million in dark money, one in four dollars is traceable to a Koch-linked group.

11. The New York State Charities Bureau for the first time required transparency for political spending from charities doing business in the state. This new approach provides a model for other states seeking to reveal dark money in politics.

10. Disappointing nearly 700,000 members of the public who had asked for more transparency from public companies, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) refused to require transparency for corporate political spending — for now.

9. Shareholder suits over corporate political spending bookended the year. In January, the Comptroller of New York sued Qualcomm, as a shareholder under Delaware law, to get their books and records of political spending. In December, the insurance giant Aetna was sued by a shareholder represented by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) for hiding its political spending.

8. The Sunlight Foundation documented that TV stations are ignoring the FCC's political file rule by leaving out key information in their filings, which are newly available on-line for the 50 biggest media markets in the U.S.

7. In the middle of the New York City mayoral race, the Second Circuit green lighted state super PACs by enjoining New York's $150,000 contribution limit as applied to independent expenditure committees. This ruling followed the approach of a 2010 D.C. Circuit case, SpeechNow, which allowed for super PACs in federal elections. The Fifth Circuit also came to the same conclusion in 2013.

6. The New York Times reported that wiretaps recorded Albany lawmakers on the take. State Senator John Sampson was indicted for embezzling money to pay for his failed election to become District Attorney for Kings County. In December, the Moreland Commission reported what New Yorkers already knew: Albany is a moral swamp. The Commission was appointed by Gov. Cuomo and recommended public financing to reform Albany’s culture.

5. Under the leadership of the Fair Political Practices Commission’s Ann Ravel, California got to the bottom of the dark money trail for two Arizona groups. Americans for Responsible Leadership and the Center to Protect Patient Rights paid the state a $1 million fine. Ms. Ravel is now a Commissioner at the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

4. The IRS proposed bright line rules for 501(c)(4)s, which would clarify what counts as “candidate-related political activity” for tax purposes. This would replace the IRS's current facts and circumstances approach.

3. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) lost corporate sponsors after the Trayvon Martin's murder trial brought a spotlight to their ‘stand your ground’ model legislation. Reporting by The Guardian indicates ALEC is trying to re-attract ex-members through a Prodigal Son project. The report also suggests ALEC may create a sister organization called the "Jeffersonian Project" to engage in more lobbying.

2. Following the cues of Move to Amend, Free Speech for People, and Lawrence Lessig's Rootstrikers, the constitutional amendment movement to reverse Citizens United v. FEC picked up steam as Oregon became the 16th State to call for the amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

1. The McCutcheon v. FEC case showed the Supreme Court has not lost its appetite for hearing campaign finance cases. If Shaun McCutcheon gets his wish, the federal aggregate contribution limit for individuals will be lifted for the first time since Watergate. Apparently, the current limit of $123,200 is just too low for him. The case could also change the law in nine states with aggregate limits, where FollowtheMoney.org found a fraction of one percent of individual donors gave the maximum contributions allowed during the 2010 and 2012 elections.  

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

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