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Money in Politics: This Week in New York

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
July 14, 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. Campaign finance reform and public financing have gained renewed momentum in New York even as the legislature is out of session. According to the Albany Times Union and North Country Public Radio, among other reports, Governor Cuomo has pledged to redouble his commitment to making reform his next big achievement. He will begin touring the state to educate voters about public campaign financing in an effort to increase its public salience. The Governor is optimistic that the legislature will consider the issue; the Times Union suggests that it could be taken up after the November election, possibly as part of an arrangement during a special session to increase legislators’ salaries.

2. The unprecedented flow of money into campaigns this election season is striking, but the problem is being compounded by the lack of transparency throughout the process. Non-profits, including 501(c)(4) organizations deemed as “social welfare” groups, are funneling millions into political ads, despite legal strictures prohibiting them from aggressively engaging in politics. In an effort to promote transparency and integrity, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has vowed to investigate political spending by non-profits. A Newsday editorial praises Schneiderman for “issuing a subpoena for records from the National Chamber Foundation to determine whether it provided millions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business group, for political activities around 2004.”

National Campaign Finance News

1. Candidate Obama promised to overhaul the system of campaign finance when he ran for election back in 2008. However, despite requests from numerous watchdog and public interest organizations, the newly elected Obama administration failed to enact sweeping reforms. President Obama did not make a serious effort to put some teeth into the Federal Election Commission, or to appoint new members. Now the President may face the consequences of a gridlocked FEC.  Obama filed an FEC complaint on June 19 asserting that right-leaning “social welfare” organizations, namely American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, were violating election law by sponsoring campaign ads in the guise of issue advocacy. However the passage of any resolution requires approval from a majority of the body’s six commissioners, and with an even partisan split and an unprecedented number of cases the prospects of a ruling remains dismal.

2. In a USA Today op-ed this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell labeled the DISCLOSE Act “un-American,” and tried to frame the campaign for improved transparency as politically motivated and retaliatory.  In reality, the DISCLOSE Act simply fixes some of the gaps in our nation’s inadequate disclosure laws after Citizens United by requiring “social welfare” organizations, unions and businesses to report political spending above $ 10,000. And as the Brennan Center’s Jonathan Backer points out in a Huffington Post editorial, the application of the bill to a broad array of groups certainly does not denote political favoritism.

McConnell’s argument shifted from disingenuous to downright absurd when the Senator justified secretive donations through the NAACP v. Alabama Supreme Court decision, which ruled that forced disclosure of the NAACP’s member lists during the 1950s would inhibit civil rights activists’ freedom of association. Comparing a civil rights organization that faced serious threats of violence during the Jim Crow era, and non-profits and Super PACs whose sole function is to run political ads, is beyond egregious. As Americans are blasted with dubious political ads on the television and the internet, and utilize such information for voting decisions, they have every right to know who is paying the tab. Even in the highly controversial Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court recognized the importance of publicly naming donors, “so citizens can see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests."  As the USA Today pointed out in its rebuttal to McConnell, robust disclosure remains a critical tool for deterring the corrupting influence of secret donations.

3. As the presidential campaign kicks into full gear, recent revelations of excessive sums, amassed through campaign fundraisers, illustrate the immediate need for campaign finance reform. Of the 1,200 individuals that the USA Today has identified as Romney bundlers, nearly 25 percent hail from the multi-millionaire world of investment and finance. Similarly 14 percent of Obama’s fundraisers work in the finance industry. Bundlers who are able to aggregate contributions from families, friends and business associates have become crucial in this election to both parties, with just 532 people directing nearly $ 106.4 million to Obama’s reelection efforts through April 20. Unlike Obama, Romney has refused to name his top fundraisers.  The immense political donations from select groups, industries and individuals begs the question whether such contributions will affect the policy positions of the candidates running for the highest office in our nation.