Tag: campaign finance

Clean Elections Act Dirties the First Amendment

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 in a lawsuit challenging the law showed that 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, the matching funds provision of the Clean Elections Act diminishes the quality and quantity of political speech.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. FEC struck down a similar provision in 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. Even this modest opportunity for opponents to raise more money was found to be an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Cato has thus filed a brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court review the lower court’s decision upholding Arizona’s Clean Elections Act.  We highlight Davis (in which Cato also filed a brief) and numerous other cases that point to a clear conclusion: if the mere possibility of your opponent getting more money is unconstitutional, then the guarantee that your opponent will get more money (Arizona’s act automatically disburses matching funds) is even more so. Allowing the government to abridge political speech in this fashion not only diminishes the quality of our political debate, but it 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. 

The Supreme Court will decide later this fall whether to review this case, McComish v. Bennett.

DISCLOSE Again and Maybe for the Last Time

The DISCLOSE Act, slightly modified, is headed for a cloture vote on Tuesday afternoon. The alterations to the bill have changed few minds outside of Congress. It remains to be seen whether the modification in the bill — the sponsor removed a passage allowing labor unions to transfer funds among its affiliates — will be enough to attract enough support to achieve cloture.

My policy analysis of DISCLOSE applies to the altered bill.

The Center for Competitive Politics provides an analysis of the altered bill here.

The American Civil Liberties Union is sending around a letter of opposition that states “we believe this legislation would fail to improve the integrity of our campaigns in any substantial way while significantly harming the speech and associational rights of Americans.”

The ACLU has four objections to the altered bill:

  • The DISCLOSE Act fails to preserve the anonymity of small donors, thereby especially chilling the expression rights of those who support controversial causes.
  • The DISCLOSE Act would chill not only express advocacy on political candidates, but also issue advocacy.
  • The DISCLOSE Act imposes impractical requirements on those who wish to communicate using broadcast messages.
  • The DISCLOSE Act imposes unjust restrictions on contractors, TARP participants and corporations with minimal foreign participation.

Big Money Speaks

Several groups came together to raise $15 million that they are now spending to promote the Fair Elections Now Act, the current public financing bill before Congress. I think this is a good thing. That is, I think it’s a good thing they can raise and spend several million dollars making their case on a public matter. It is an especially good thing compared to an alternative world in which Congress prohibited these groups from raising and spending millions of dollars for political advocacy.

Still, we might keep in mind a recent report by the United States Government Accountability Office that examined public financing in Maine and Arizona:

While there was some evidence of statistically significant changes in one of the five goals of Maine’s and Arizona’s public financing programs, we could not directly attribute these changes to the programs, nor did we find significant changes in the remaining four goals after program implementation. Specifically, there were statistically significant decreases in one measure of electoral competition—the winner’s margin of victory—in legislative races in both states. However, GAO could not directly attribute these decreases to the programs due to other factors, such as the popularity of candidates, which affect electoral outcomes. We found no change in two other measures of competition, and there were no observed changes in voter choice—the average number of legislative candidates per district race. In Maine, decreases in average candidate spending in House races were statistically significant, but a state official said this was likely due to reductions in the amounts given to participating candidates in 2008, while average spending in Maine Senate races did not change. In Arizona, average spending has increased in the five elections under the program. There is no indication the programs decreased perceived interest group influence, although some candidates and interest group officials GAO interviewed said campaign tactics changed, such as the timing of campaign spending.

In other words, nothing changed except that taxpayers paid for campaigns.

Kagan May Well Become “The Liberal Scalia”

More highlights from Day 2 of the Kagan confirmation hearings:

•  In addition to backing away from President Obama’s empathy standard, Elena Kagan, under questioning by Senator Grassley, backs away from her “judicial hero” Aharon Barak, saying that she does not share his judicial philosophy, which involves judges making policy decisions and affirmatively shaping society.  This is an important concession.  Grassley also elicits the statement that only the president and Congress should worry about American influence in the world.

•  The wily Arlen Specter, in his last Supreme Court hearing (unless Justice Ginsburg retires over the summer), treats his questioning as a prosecutor would.  Technical questions and cutting off responses when Kagan begins to expound on the current state of the law, when what he really wants to know is what she thinks about the law.  Unfortunately, Specter accepts Kagan’s statements that she respects Congress but does not press her right when the next question would demand an actual opinion on Citizens United or on Morrison (an important case in which the Court struck down the Violence Against Women Act as beyond Congress’s powers to regulate interstate commerce).  Kagan admits that Citizens United was a “jolt to the system” because states had relied on the pre-existing campaign finance regime.  Unfortunately, this is again an empirical statement rather than a normative one.

•  Kagan does express a firm opinion in favor of televising Supreme Court proceedings (this is one of Specter’s bugaboos).  “I guess I’ll have to have my hair done more often,” she says.

•  Lindsey Graham is definitely worth the price of admission.  First he prompts Kagan to admit that “my political views are generally progressive” after she declined to characterize herself in anyway in response to previous senators’ queries.  Then he gets her to endorse her classmate Miguel Estrada for the Supreme Court (which may be of interest to General Petraeus, who testified before another Senate committee today).  Finally, in questioning regarding the Christmas Day bomber, he provokes an ethnic love-in after his question about where Kagan was on Christmas Day elicits the response, “well, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”  As he did with Sotomayor, Graham makes clear that he is likely to disagree with many of Kagan’s judicial decisions, but will vote for her regardless.

•  John Cornyn is the first senator to push the size and scope of government as a major line of questioning.  He asks her one of my pet questions: What limits are there on government?”  Kagan replies by reciting the Commerce Clause standards set forth in existing precedent, that Congress cannot touch activity that is not economic or that is left traditionally to state power. Well, that’s progress, but of course it raises the question of whether forcing someone to buy health insurance involves regulating economic activity and whether health care regulation is a traditional state responsibility.

•  Tom Coburn picks up where Cornyn left off, proposing a hypothetical bill requiring everyone to eat three fruits and three vegetables per day.  Kagan considers that a “dumb law” but says that “courts would be wrong to strike down laws simply because they are senseless.”  Well, ok, but is that particular senseless law unconstitutional?  Kagan seems pained (in real psychic discomfort) but Coburn lets her off the hook in reading from the Federalist Papers—a nice edition that should make for a good picture in the Oklahoma papers—and talking about the explosive growth of government.  Kagan shrugs off this discursion by citing Marbury v. Madison—“the role of the courts is to say what the law is”—and concluding that deficits aren’t a problem courts can resolve, at which point Coburn’s time runs out.  We will revisit this issue.

In short, Kagan is without doubt smarter, wittier, and more collegial than Sonia Sotomayor.  Unfortunately, that means she is likely to be more dangerous, a true “liberal Scalia.”  We now know that two of the catchphrases from these hearings will be that “I’m not going to grade cases”—why not?—and that everything the Court has ever decided is “well-settled law.”  In my mind, Kagan has not yet met the burden of persuasion regarding constitutional limits on government, which is my focus at these hearings.  I would look for Senators Sessions, Cornyn, and Coburn to hit this issue hard on the next go-around.

CP at Townhall

Change? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Change

Today Politico Arena asks:

Can the DISCLOSE Act, with exemptions carved out for large special-interest groups, effectively rein in the influence of spending in campaigns?

My response:

It’s been a bad week for Barack Obama. His Tuesday night Oval Office speech, the first of his presidency, was panned by left and right alike, not least on the comedy channels. And now at week’s end congressional Democrats have had to pull their answer to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that he so ridiculed during his State of the Union Address – because Blue Dog Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus have balked. Still worse, although it looks like nothing will come of this latest effort by Democrats to rig campaign finance law in their favor, the damage has been done by the union and NRA carve-outs in the DISCLOSE bill – shades of ObamaCare’s Cornhusker kickback. Democrats don’t seem to get it. The voters want change, not this.
But how could it be otherwise? This mostly Democratic campaign finance crusade over several decades, resulting in an incomprehensible body of regulations replete with draconian sanctions for missteps, has been an utter failure on its own terms. Designed nominally to get the corrupting influence of money out of politics, every restriction has been followed by ever more money in politics, because the real aim has nothing to do with corruption and everything to do with incumbency protection – by making it ever-more difficult to mount a challenge to congressional incumbents. In this morning’s Wall Street Journal Kim Strassel gives us a glimpse of that as it has unfolded in this latest effort at “reform.” But all you really need to know is that in over half of our states we have virtually no campaign finance restrictions, and there’s no more corruption in those states than in the others. Sometimes facts settle issues, and there’s one big one.

Problems Overturning Citizens United

Congress has been trying to overturn the Citizens United decision for the past four months. (Citizens United invalidated bans on speech by groups taking a corporate form). Their effort — the DISCLOSE Act — now seems bogged down in the House of Representatives. The National Rifle Association argues that they should not have to disclose their small donors. The labor unions also have complaints:

Amaya Tune, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg this week that “the final bill should treat corporations different than democratic organizations such as unions. We believe the legislation should counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business and guarantee effective disclosure of who is paying for what.”

Here’s the problem: The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress cannot regulate campaign finance to achieve equality of influence.  Ms. Tune is calling for changes in DISCLOSE to “counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business.” If Congress enacts those changes, how can the law be defended against the charge that Congress is seeking to legislate a greater equality of influence? Won’t the parts of the law demanded by the unions be unconstitutional?