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Money in Politics This Week

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Syed Zaidi
October 6, 2012

Crossposted at ReformNY

Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.



Public Financing Can Stem Corruption in Albany
As the public stands appalled by the shameful behavior of their representatives in Albany, Lawrence Norden, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, offers a solution to re-engage citizens in the political process in the Press and Sun Bulletin. Currently New York State’s sky-high contribution limits drown out the voice of regular voters. A recent analysis of state election funds from NYPIRG found that 127 donors gave $50,000 or more to statewide candidates and political parties over the past year, for a total of nearly $17 million. Under a Fair Elections system, candidates that abide by lower contribution limits and enhanced disclosure rules would receive public matching funds for every small donation they raise. New York City, as well as Maine and parts of Connecticut serve as thriving examples of effective public financing systems. “The cost to the public is miniscule, while the effects of a broken Albany cost taxpayers every day.” Although Governor Cuomo has publicly pledged his support for campaign finance reform, members of the New York legislature have yet to act. It is time we demand that Albany take action.  

Brennan Center Hosts Panel Discussion on Campaign Finance Reform
This Tuesday, the Brennan Center hosted a panel of legal scholars, advocates and experts in the field of campaign finance reform. The panelists discussed the impact of small donor matching funds on civic participation and rejuvenating our democracy. The panelists included: 

  •  Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard Law School, director of the Edmund J. Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and author of Republic, Lost: Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It;
  •  Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, whom the New York Times described as “the country’s leading proponent of campaign finance reform,”and co-author of the new report Empowering Small Donors in Federal Elections, with the Brennan Center’s Adam Skaggs;
  • Richard Briffault, Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School and author of numerous publications on campaign finance reform and election law; and
  • Monica Youn, the inaugural Brennan Center Constitutional Fellow at the NYU School of Law and former director of the Brennan Center’s Money in Politics program.

Professor Lessig asserted that the “pattern of influence” of large donors in America amounts to “corruption relative to the Framer’s baseline.” He demonstrated that the Framers gave us a Republic with a branch that would be “dependent on the people alone” as Federalist52 states. “The problem is Congress has evolved … a dependence upon the funders. This is dependence too, but it is different and conflicting with dependence upon the people so long as the funders are not the people.”

Reformers Unite in Manhattan to Push for Public Financing
On Thursday Citizen Action, the Center for Working Families, the Communications Workers of America, SEIU 1199, Sierra Club, NAACP and the Brennan Center, among others, gathered in Manhattan for a summit to discuss the next steps for fomenting the transition to a clean money system. Larry Norden, senior counsel at the Brennan Center lauded the benefits of campaign finance reform, presenting original research that indicates how small donor matching and public funding of elections has increased political participation and competition in New York City elections.


Presidential Candidates Fail to Debate the Elephant in the Room
The first Presidential debate took place on Wednesday (October 3rd) at the University of Denver in Colorado. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney highlighted their differences on job initiatives, regulatory policies, taxation, deficit reduction, and healthcare. Obama blasted Romney for supporting $4 billion in “corporate welfare” for oil companies, and Romney fired back alleging that Obama “provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world.” Despite these accusations of cozy relationships with special interests, the moderator Jim Lehrer did not pose any questions about our broken campaign finance system. Before the debates, Public Campaign recommended asking five questions from each candidate regarding their campaign financing tactics and lobbyist connections. In response to ignoring this elephant in the room, Chris Kluwe, football player for the Minnesota Vikings, tweeted “You know what I want to see debated? Campaign finance reform. Citizens United. Term limits. Tax reform. Cure the disease, not the symptoms.” 

Voters in Battleground Districts are Disgusted by Money in Politics
A new poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in competitive Congressional districts demonstrates that voters are extremely concerned about the corruption of our democratic system by the over-sized role of money in campaigns. Contrary to the Supreme Court’s interpretation in Citizens United, voters believe that big donations to Super PACs involve a corrupting quid pro quo with politicians by a 2-to-1 margin. Citizens understand that big money has an influence over the policy platforms of Congressional candidates. Furthermore, 64 percent of respondents believe that big donor sand secret money control which candidates the public gets to hear from, compared to only 29 percent who think that voters decide this matter. The most important finding perhaps is that voters are willing to take this message to the ballot box. Seventy-eight percent of respondents state that it is important that their Congressional candidates devise a plan to dramatically reduce the amount of money in politics and the influence of Super PACs.

District Court Upends Contribution Limits for Montana State Races
Montana’s low campaign contribution limits for state candidates have been struck down by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena. Lovell said the laws violate free speech rights under the First Amendment by preventing candidates “from amassing the resources necessary for effective campaign advocacy.” The Montana campaign finance laws restrict individual and PAC contributions to $630 per gubernatorial candidate, $310 for other statewide offices, and $160 for district or local candidates. Now the opportunity for unlimited donations by individuals, political parties, and political action committees to candidates for office in Montana is a dire reality, unless an emergency stay of the ruling is approved while the order is appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Attorney General Steve Bullock, who is running for governor this year, stated that it “is a destructive ruling for Montana’s citizen democracy, and disturbing for those of us who believe that democracy is not for sale and politics is about values and issues, not money.” Jonathan Motl, a Helena attorney who drafted the 1994 voter initiative which reduced contribution limits, said the restrictions allowed smaller donors more power in the political process.“It’s a sad day, because it takes political power away from the average Montanan,” he stated.

Deadlocked FEC Fails to Issue a Regulation on Disclosure
This summer, Reform NY informed readers about the Van Hollen v. FEC case, where the D.C. District Court ruled that the Federal Election Commission’s interpretation of McCain-Feingold was incorrect and consequently that the law mandated the disclosure of all donors to non-profits engaged in “electioneering communications.” In September however, the D.C Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court’s orders. The FEC was given two options by the Appeals Court; either construct a new regulation or defend the current regulation in the District Court.  Yesterday the FEC, in its constant state of partisan gridlock, failed to craft a new regulation regarding outside spending disclosure. Now the Van Hollen lawsuit is back in the D.C. District Court, where Van Hollen’s legal team will be arguing that current the FEC regulation, which doesn’t mandate full disclosure of contributions, is “arbitrary and capricious.”

FEC Releases New Electronic Tools to Track Expenditures and Filings
The Federal Election Commission has developed two new technological tools, the Candidate and Committee Viewer and the Electronic Filing RSS Feed, to ease public access to campaign finance data. The Candidate and Committee Viewer is a search portal that consolidates campaign finance activities of all federal candidates, political committees, independent expenditure report filers or other report filers. This data is readily available in aggregated, graphical, or spreadsheet format, the latter of which is downloadable. The Electronic Filing RSS Feed allows subscribers to receive notification of new electronic filings, monthly filings, quarterly filings, presidential filings, congressional filings and PAC and party filings. Alternatively subscribers can also customize feeds based on committee identification number, state or district.

Spending on TV ads Remains a Mystery
One extraordinary feature of the post-Citizens United era is the barrage of outside groups, funded by deep-pocketed interests, unleashing ads across the country. But disclosure of these donations and expenditures remains a mystery in many cases because of porous disclosure rules, with reporters often quoting contradictory figures. Media reports about the TV ad wars have thus far relied upon the Federal Election Commission or the Kantar Media Group. However aggregated figures for the same groups from the two sources are contradictory. For example, Americans for Prosperity has purchased $36 million worth of TV ads as of September 20th, according to Kantar, but $28.5 million according to the FEC. “Less than two months away from electing a president, we don’t really have a handle on how much outside groups are spending on television campaign ads to influence that choice.” Notable differences in methodology between Kantar and the FEC explain the differences, but legal loopholes in FEC and Federal Communication Commission reporting requirements also liberate non-profits from the responsibility of disclosure. The Sunlight Foundation and Free Press will be introducing Political Ad Sleuth to garner a more notable count of spending on political ads.