Tag: campaign finance

A Weak Defense of Disclosure

In an earlier post, I wrote about the problems with the Obama administration’s executive order to force government contractors to reveal their political activity.

The administration defends the mandate by arguing “taxpayers deserve to know how contractors are spending money they’ve earned from the government.”

For the first (and perhaps last) time, I rise to the defense of government contractors. The President apparently believes that anyone who sells a good or service to the government must account for the uses of the money received in the transaction in perpetuity? Obama’s press secretary said the President’s “goal is transparency and accountability. That’s the responsible thing to do when you’re handling taxpayer dollars.”

I do not understand this. The government extracts taxes and spends the money. Indeed, government officials should be accountable for that spending. But once the exchange is made, the money belongs to a private firm. It is no longer the property of the taxpayers.  Perhaps the use of a firm’s money should be disclosed, but you need a different argument to justify that mandate. The President seems to be proposing that anyone who does business with the government may have to account for the money they earn in those transactions. That assertion strikes me as a real expansion of government power.

The most troubling part of all this remains the President’s view that he can enact this mandate through an executive order. Americans should be wondering why a rule rejected by Congress can simply be enacted by fiat by the President. The President does not enjoy the power of a king, does he?

The President’s gambit may be in trouble. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, is questioning the content of the decree. I am glad she is concerned about the First Amendment. I would be happier if she questioned the Obama-Bush conception of executive power that informs this effort.

Monday Links

  • “One of the first rules of negotiating is never to threaten to do something unless you are prepared to do it.”
  • Policymakers and pundits assume the U.S. is so dominant that we’re prepared to fight multiple fronts at once, and that it won’t affect our security.
  • Candidates for office should prepare to raise money, not rely on taxpayer subsidies.
  • More market liberalization could help prepare Japan for any other natural disaster.
  • Are Tea Party-backed Republicans prepared to go the distance on spending cuts?


If the Government Gives Your Election Opponent More Money the More Money You Spend, It Burdens Your Speech

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Arizona matching-public-campaign-funding case, McComish v. Bennett, spearheaded by our friends at the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice.

Here’s the background:  In 1998, after years of scandals ranging from governors being indicted to legislators taking bribes, Arizona passed the Citizens Clean Elections Act. This law was intended to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.  Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. In short, if a privately funded candidate spends more than his publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the law, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech. Indeed, ample evidence introduced at trial showed that privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. Notably, in a case where a privately funded candidate is running against more than one publicly assisted opponent, the matching funds act as a multiplier: if privately funded candidate A is running against publicly funded candidates B, C, and D, every dollar A spends will effectively fund his opposition three-fold. In elections where there is no effective speech without spending money, the matching funds provision unquestionably chills speech and thus is clearly unconstitutional.  For more, see Roger Pilon’s policy forum featuring Goldwater lawyer Nick Dranias, which Cato hosted last week and you can view here.

The oral arguments were entertaining, if predictable. A nice debate opened up between Justices Scalia and Kagan about the burden that publicly financed speech imposes on candidats who trigger that sort of financing mechanism under Arizona law. Justice Kennedy then entered the fray, starting out in his usual place — open to both sides — but soon was laying into the Arizona’s counsel alongside Justice Alito and the Chief Justice.

The United States was granted argument time to support Arizona’s law, but Justice Alito walked the relatively young lawyer from the Solicitor General’s office right into what I consider to be his (Alito’s) best majority opinion to date, the federal “millionaire’s amendment” case (paraphrasing; here’s the transcript):

Alito:  Do you agree that “leveling the playing field” is not a valid rationale for restricting speech?

US:  Sort of.

Alito:  Have you read FEC v. Davis?

Note to aspiring SCOTUS litigators: try not to finesse away direct precedent written by a sitting justice.

My prediction is that the Court will decide this as they did Davis, 5-4, with Alito writing the opinion striking down the law and upholding free speech.  Cato’s amicus briefs in this case, which you can read here and here, focused on the similarities to Davis, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll get cited.

NB: I got to the Court too late to get into the courtroom today but live-tweeted (@ishapiro) the oral arguments from the (overflow) bar members’ lounge, which has a live audio feed. I was later informed that such a practice violates the Court rules, however – ironic given how pro-free-speech this Court is – so I will not be repeating the short-lived experiment.  (That said, you should still follow me on Twitter – and also be sure to follow our friends @IJ and @GoldwaterInst!)

A Year After Citizens United, Campaign Finance Back at the Court

As Caleb noted earlier, today marks the one-year anniversary of Citizens United, a case I first thought ”just” concerned some weird regulation of pay-per-view movies, but turned out to be about asserted government power to ban political speech — including books and TV commercials — simply because the speaker was not one individual but a group (in corporate or or other associational form).  See also this op-ed by ACLU lawyer Joel Gora.

Roger similarly noted the continuing discussion in Congress and elsewhere about the public financing of elections.  As it turns out, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to such a system, specifically Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  Brought by our friends at the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute and supported by our brief at the cert petition stage, this lawsuit challenges a law that aimed to “clean up” state politics by creating a system for publicly funding campaigns.

Participation in the public funding is not mandatory, however, and those who do not participate are subject to rules that match their “excess” private funds with disbursals to their opponent from the public fund. That is, if a privately funded candidate spends more than her publicly funded opponent, then the publicly funded candidate receives public “matching funds.”

Whatever the motivations behind the Clean Elections Act, the effects have been to significantly chill political speech: privately funded candidates changed their spending — and thus their speaking — as a result of the matching funds provisions. In elections, where there is no effective speech without spending money, matching funds provisions such as those at issue here diminish the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, however, the Supreme Court struck down a similar part of the federal McCain-Feingold law in which individually wealthy candidates were penalized for spending their own money by triggering increased contribution limits for their opponents (Davis v. FEC, in which Cato also filed a brief). Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato’s latest brief thus asks the following question: Whether Arizona may give a publicly funded candidate extra money because a privately funded opponent or his supporters have, in the state’s judgment, spoken too much. We highlight Davis and numerous other cases that point to a clear answer: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of political debate, but ignores the fundamental principle upon which the First Amendment is premised: that the government cannot be trusted to regulate political speech for the public benefit. Moreover, the state cannot condition the exercise of the right to speak on the promotion of a viewpoint contrary to the speaker’s.

The case is McComish v. Bennett, consolidated with Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett.  The Court will hear it March 28, with a decision expected by the end of June.

Private Vice, Public Virtue

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Would the House plan to vote next week on a proposal to end the system of financing presidential candidates and national conventions with federal funds wisely put to rest a public financing scheme that never worked well, or would it eliminate a bulwark against political corruption by forcing candidates to rely entirely on private money?

My response:

The decades long effort by the Left to finance presidential candidates and national conventions with federal funds – part of the Left’s more ambitious effort to finance all political campaigns with public funds – never worked as proponents hoped it would, with taxpayer participation through check-offs declining from 28.7 percent in 1980 to 7.3 percent in 2009 – and for good reason.

The corruption-prevention rationale was always bogus. And the idea that public financing would itself be corruption free didn’t pass the straight-face test. The American people may be dumb (quiet), but they’re not stupid! They’ll make their political contributions directly – thank you – not through the government – if the law allows them that right, which at present is highly regulated. Let’s hope that this move by the new House is only the first step toward removing government completely from the campaign financing business.

The Campaign Finance Crusade of The New York Times

In a barely coherent editorial this morning, The New York Times continues its decades-long crusade against free speech – except its own, of course – with yet another blast at the Supreme Court over its campaign finance decision last January in the Citizens United case. And again, the Times misstates the decision: it did not overturn “a century of precedent.” Perhaps its editorialists can be forgiven for that, even after nearly a year to get it right: after all, the president himself continues to misstate the decision, and that’s good enough for them.

Entitled “Our Constitutional Court,” the editorial’s main point seems to be that the Court is “redefining itself as a constitutional court.” That’s a curious charge. Many countries have “constitutional courts” that give, among other things, advisory opinions about the constitutionality of pending legislation. Our courts, by contrast, decide only “cases or controversies” that are ripe for decision, based on facts that bring the controversy into fairly sharp relief; but they’re still often “constitutional” decisions. The charge here, apparently, is that the Court acted where it needn’t have or, perhaps, had no authority to act. Yet the facts belie that.

Citizens United is a complex decision, but the facts giving rise to it are fairly simple. It arose over the question whether Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, could advertise a film critical of Hillary Clinton in broadcast ads during the 2008 primary season, in apparent violation of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. Thus, there was a real controversy here. But in upholding the right of corporations and unions to make independent campaign expenditures supporting or opposing candidates, the Court sustained a “facial challenge” to the statute that the parties had agreed to dismiss, and in so doing reached out to overturn an anomalous and mistaken 1990 decision that was directly on point, even though that case was not before the Court in the initial ’go-round of Citizens United. And that, apparently, is the “judicial activism” that so exercises the Times’ editorialists.

In truth, however, the Court was following a fairly well established practice. In First Amendment speech cases, as here, the Court entertains “facial” rather than “as-applied” challenges for a very simple reason. Were the Court to have found simply that Citizens United’s rights were violated in this instance, based on these particular facts, the statutory provisions restricting those rights would be left standing, unlike with a facial challenge, and the future speech not only of Citizens United but of all others would be chilled. The First Amendment will not stand that, and the Court so ruled.

Of all people, the Times editorialists surely understand that. But in their minds, campaign finance is not speech, and so they use this decision, in light of the “tumultuous change in the recent elections,” with which the editorial begins, to make a much broader point: that the Court decided “a sweeping issue of constitutional law” by “moving past the limited controversy that was actually in the case.” Thus the Court “inserted itself where [it] has said it should be most restrained, deferring to other branches with more competence to decide questions about the workings of politics, including about the role of money.”

That’s rich – the Times championing judicial restraint. One wonders what the response would have been had the Court held that the Great Gray Lady’s corporate wealth could not be put behind campaign editorials, almost all supporting the candidates of a single party. Fortunately, the Court seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The Times editorialists are perfectly free to put their corporate wealth behind candidates, and so, now, are the rest of us – thanks to the Court’s grasping the nettle.

The Success of SpeechNow

This morning the United States Supreme Court refused to consider the appeal in the case of SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission. That’s a shame.

I have written before about the SpeechNow case. Here’s a brief summary of the issues. The judiciary has long held that individuals could spend as much as they wished on elections. The traditional rationale for restricting spending – preventing corruption of the political process – did not apply to spending by individuals. If that is true, the SpeechNow plaintiffs wondered why individuals joined in a group (and independent of the candidates and parties) should not have the same freedom from restrictions.

It turned out, thanks to Citizens United, that individuals did have that right to be free of limits on campaign spending as recognized by a federal court. That same court maintained, however, that the associated individuals still had to register with the Federal Election Commission as a “political committee.” The paperwork and related rules complicate and discourage participating in politics. By refusing to hear SpeechNow’s appeal, the Supreme Court has decided that these associations must register with the government before engaging in politics.

Nonetheless, the SpeechNow plaintiff deserve our thanks. They have gotten a lot more than “half a loaf” out of their effort. True, the government is still too involved in electoral speech, but the limits on political speech and association have been invalidated. That is a real achievement and more evidence that the long era of restrictions on campaign finance is drawing to a close.