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Learning to Walk and Chew Gum

To follow money in politics, voters have to pay attention to not only what the candidates are offering for the future, but what the government is doing now.

September 23, 2015

American voters who care about the issue of money in politics must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. This means the electorate must pay attention to both what candidates for office are saying and what the government is doing.

On the campaign trail, there’s a lot for the reform-minded voter to like. Four candidates for president (Sanders, Clinton, O’Malley and Lessig) have proposed strong campaign finance reform. Indeed, Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig has staked his entire campaign on pushing the reset button on money in American politics. Meanwhile, Clinton has put together a reform package with nearly every money in politics reform, from small donor public financing to overturning Citizens United.

But at the very same time, our current elected and appointed officials are doing all they can to make the problem of money in politics worse. Let’s look at the federal government branch by branch to see what they are up to while the press covers the latest candidate outrage.

Over in the Judiciary, there are still five hostile justices on the Supreme Court (Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Chief Justice Roberts) who seem eager to dismantle nearly every campaign finance rule they can get their fingers on. As a reminder, in McCutcheon in 2014, they allowed the wealthiest donors the ability to max out donations to every single candidate for federal office. According to the Court, limits on how many candidates the rich can back would “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities.”

In the Executive branch, the problem has largely been one of inaction. President Obama has ignored repeated calls to require more transparency from federal contractors that spend in politics. Many federal contractors have a long history of breaking procurement rules costing taxpayers billions of dollars annually. It might be nice to make sure they’re not running afoul of campaign finance rules too.

Also in the Executive branch, at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Chair Mary Jo White has ignored the voices of over 1.2 million members of the public including former chairs of the SEC, House members, Senators, state treasurers, academics, and retail and institutional investors. What this diverse group wants is an SEC rule requiring publicly traded companies to reveal what they are spending on politics. Stockholders deserve to know when they are footing the bill for political fights. The Petition is No. 4–637.

And then there’s Congress which is doing its level best to make politics more opaque and expensive. In last year’s Cromnibus Appropriations bill, a rider raised the individual contribution limit to national political parties to the astronomical sum of $777,600 per donor per year. Congress is also trying to pass measures that would defeat transparency by specifically blocking the president from issuing an order on federal contractors and restricting the SEC from passing the political disclosure rule.

If these bills arrive at the President’s desk with these riders, one would hope that he would veto them. But if things continue on their current trajectory, money in politics is going get much worse before a new president has the chance to make it a little bit better.

Which means that voters need to do more than watch the current presidential debates with popcorn and a bingo card. Voters should urge those already in office to do the right thing. If we only tune in every four years, we are missing the point. After all, democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Photo: Flickr/Pictures of Money)

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