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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
August 4, 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.


New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. New York City is bracing for the “Super PAC” effect in the coming elections for 59 major offices in 2013 by requiring very rigorous disclosure of independent expenditures. While Citizens United prevents the City from limiting independent political spending, disclosure is an important step to protect New York City’s public financing system, which has served as a model for reform advocates.

2. In a Times-Union op-ed, Richard Kirsch, of the Roosevelt Institute, praises Governor Cuomo’s new pledge for Fair Elections as the most significant long-term solution for economic equality in New York. “We won’t have an economy that works for everyone as long as our government is captive of super-rich campaign contributors and corporations.” If we wonder why some corporations can get away with lower tax rates than minimum wage earners, we need to look no further than the tax loopholes designed by our policy makers. Since 2010 the Business Council of New York State, a lobbying group for big business, has donated over $ 1.9 million to state senators and political parties to secure such legislation. However even in this system, public financing provides a reasonable alternative to hold institutions accountable to ordinary citizens. Under a Fair Elections public financing system, candidates compete for office by raising small contributions matched by public funds. Politicians are elected and rewarded for their grass-roots outreach and work at the community level, rather than the amount of money they can collect from a few big donors.  


National Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. As the Presidential race heats up, both candidates have charted an aggressive and historically unprecedented course of fundraising. The Republican and Democratic parties are seeking to maximize donations from the wealthy within the bounds of the existing legal framework, often closely skirting campaign finance violations. Although individuals are limited to $ 2,500 in contributions to Romney for President and $ 30,800 to the Republican National Committee, rich donors can also contribute to the Republican parties of Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Vermont through Romney Victory Inc., a joint fundraising committee. This money can later be redistributed to state parties in presidential battlegrounds as Romney and the RNC see fit. Romney Victory has $ 57.7 million remaining on hand. It has already transferred $ 15.7 million to Romney for President, $ 53 million to the RNC and $ 20,000 each to the Republican parties of Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Vermont. The Obama campaign is employing a similar strategy. The Obama Victory fund has amassed $ 9 million and will likely allocate portions to state party committees in swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin.

2. Last month, ReformNY informed readers about broad popular support for campaign finance reform among the general public. This week’s new Gallup poll shows that Americans view reducing government corruption as the second-highest priority for the next President, after economic concerns. Nearly 87 percent of respondents indicated that reducing corruption in the federal government should be an “extremely important” or “very important” objective for the next President. Ninety-two percent said the same about revitalizing the economy. Both Republicans and Democrats regard government corruption as one of the top five national priorities for the next administration.

3. In a welcome development, due to a federal district court ruling, the FEC has issued a statement requiring disclosure for electioneering communications by non-profits. Shadowy 501(c)(4) groups running more than $ 10,000 in issue ads that reference particular candidates will now have to divulge the names and addresses of donors that provided more than $ 1,000 to the effort. The mandate is in effect until the Van Hollen lawsuit is resolved on appeal or the FEC delineates new disclosure regulations. However key groups are already attempting to evade the requirements. Hiding behind the guise of “protecting contributors from intimidation” Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have stated that they will alter the language of their ads to avoid reporting to the FEC. Another shortcoming of the rule is that even if organizations violate the regulations, prosecution is not likely until after the election.

4. The grass-roots push for campaign finance reform is gaining momentum among lawmakers in state capitals and D.C. This week the House Democratic leadership held a rally in support of the DARE – disclose, amend, reform and elect – agenda. Prominent attendees included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, and President of the Public Campaign Action Fund Nick Nyhart. The proposals recommend legislation to overturn Citizens United through a Constitutional Amendment, initiate a system of public campaign financing and small-donor matching funds, and direct clandestine political advertising groups to disclose their donors. "Politicians should be accountable solely to their constituents, the people who elect them, and not to the handful of people who can write them absolutely gargantuan checks” Nick Nyhart stated. In further solidarity with the movement for reform, Massachusetts is the latest state to offer a resolution in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maryland have already passed similar resolutions. These resolutions have been introduced in 26 states and more than 288 cities and towns nationwide.

5. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2012 legislative and Presidential elections will be the costliest thus far. A graph on Open Secrets illustrates that the total cost of elections in 2012 has already reached $ 5.8 billion, compared to $ 5.4 billion for the entire 2008 cycle. Furthermore, outside money now constitutes a higher proportion of overall spending: $ 508 million in 2012, relative to $ 286 million in 2008. A CBS report outlines the top Super PAC donors this political season. Yet exact figures on contributions and expenditures by non-profit groups remain largely unknown—it is estimated that $ 172 million has been spent on radio, television, and internet advertising by these organizations.

6. Apologists for Citizens United are wrong on the law and the facts, argues Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center. Prior to Citizens United there were strict contribution limits on how much an individual could donate to PACs. Now Super PACs—the progeny of the Citizens United decision—can raise and spend egregious sums without adhering to any boundaries. These entities have accrued $ 298 million as of this year, with $ 53 million accumulated in June alone. It is no surprise that Super PAC contributors are anticipating rewards for their investments. As Senator Bob Dole (R-Kansas) stated in 1983, “when people contribute to political action committees they expect something in return other than good government." For example, the Huffington Post  reports that the Koch Brothers—who have contributed $ 3 million to Restore Our Future, Romney’s Super PAC—favor a Republican administration and Congress that will abolish laws and dismantle regulatory agencies seeking to protect the environment. On the other side of the political spectrum, the AFL-CIO and teachers’ unions have donated heavily to liberal Super PACs. They hope to preserve collective bargaining rights and benefits for public and private workers.