Tag: campaign finance

Three Problems with Taxpayer Financing of Election Campaigns

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has introduced H.R. 1, a bill with two public financing components: one a pilot program for vouchers, and the other a conventional if generous subsidy program for small donations. I focus here on the latter. 

Public financing schemes have often focused on encouraging small donors in part to allegedly counter the influence of “Big Money.” The financing of campaigns by taxpayers fits easily into a number of dichotomies that structure our public discourse: small/large, vulnerable/powerful, poor/rich, left/right, and of course, friend/enemy. The realities are less exciting and persuasive than the rhetoric. 

It is an odd time to be pushing government spending on congressional candidates. Federal deficits are now approaching a trillion dollars annually. Small donor fundraising is much easier and much more successful than in the past. ActBlue, a “fundraising technology for the left [seeking] to democratize power and help small-dollar donors make their voices heard in a real way,” had a record election in 2018. It funneled over $1.6 billion to Democratic candidates.     

In that respect, this bill is entirely predictable in a highly partisan time. The government subsidy is six times the sum raised by small donations. A new majority is thus proposing a $9.6 billion (yes, billion) subsidy for its congressional candidates in the 2020 election. All things being equal, that would be a massive advantage for the party in that election. 

But things need not be equal. Such a huge subsidy would encourage the GOP to find small donors. Maybe “ActRed” would ready for 2020 and enjoy equal success. That’s not likely but let’s assume it is for purposes of argument.  

Where would the billions needed to finance this program come from? The funding  would involve new taxes or borrowing since it is new spending. So either current or future taxpayers would finance the program.  

Here’s one problem: the government would be using its power of coercion to force people to support candidates and parties they do not support (indeed, to support people they don’t want their children to marry). This coercion would happen more to Republicans than Democrats at first, but Republicans might get better at claiming the subsidies over time. We would end up with the government coercing everyone without regard to partisan commitments.  

Advocates of taxpayer financing also might think the scheme takes the side of “the people” (small donors) against the elite (current donors). ActBlue reports they had 4.9 million unique donors in 2018. That’s a large absolute number. But it constitutes about 3 percent of eligible voters in the United States. These ActBlue contributors are not average Americans. ActBlue donors are also a small portion of liberals in America. In 2016, about 26 percent of the nation identified as liberal or about 47 million people. Hence ActBlue got money from just over 10 percent of liberals. By any measure, ActBlue donors are a political elite. No doubt they are a political elite that believes their policy views represent what’s good for the nation and the average American. But they are not average Americans.  

Finally, this bill asks taxpayers to provide the parties with large sums for their campaigns. But ActBlue showed that the small donor elite can be mobilized, and Republicans have every incentive to match ActBlue’s success. Given that private political entities are doing well with small donors, why should the taxpayer be forced to support candidates and parties they do not want to support? Don’t taxpayers have better uses for $20 billion? 

New York Attorney General Schneiderman Goes After Citizens United’s Donors

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demands out-of-state charities disclose all donors for his inspection. He does not demand this of all charities, only those he decides warrant his special scrutiny. Schneiderman garnered national attention for his campaign to use the powers of his office to harass companies and organizations who do not endorse his preferred policies regarding climate change. Now, it seems he seeks to do the same to right-of-center organizations that might displease him. Our colleague Walter Olson has cataloged Schneiderman’s many misbehaviors.

He’s currently set his sights on Citizens United, a Virginia non-profit that produces conservative documentaries. While Citizens United has solicited donations in New York for decades without any problem, Schneiderman now demands that they name names, telling him who has chosen to support the group. Citizens United challenged this demand in court, arguing that to disclose this information would risk subjecting their supporters to harassment and intimidation.

These fears are not mere hyperbole. If the name Citizens United rings a bell, it’s because the organization, and the Supreme Court case of the same name, has become the Emmanuel Goldstein of the American left, complete with Democratic senators leading a ritualistic two minutes hate on the Senate floor. In 2010, the Supreme Court upheld its right to distribute Hillary: The Movie, and ever since “Citizens United” has been a synecdoche for what Democrats consider to be the corporate control of America. Is it unwarranted to think that their donors might be subjected to the sort of targeted harassment suffered by lawful gun owners, or that Schneiderman might “accidentally” release the full donor list to the public, as Obama’s IRS did with the confidential filings of gay marriage opponents?

The Supreme Court has long recognized the dangers inherent in applying the power of the state against the right of private association. The cornerstone here is 1958’s NAACP v Alabama. For reasons that hardly need be pointed out, the NAACP did not trust the state of Alabama, in the 1950s, to be good stewards of its membership lists. “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan II, who went as far as to compare such demands to a “requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying arm-bands.” More recently, Justice Alito pointed out in a similar context that while there are undoubted purposes served by reasonable, limited disclosure requirements, the First Amendment requires that “speakers must be able to obtain an as-applied exemption without clearing a high evidentiary hurdle” regarding the potential harms of disclosure.

But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has decided it knows better than the Supremes. On Thursday, it ruled that Citizen United’s challenge should be thrown out without even an opportunity to prove their case. In the process, it effectively turned NAACP into a “Jim Crow” exception to a general rule of unlimited government prerogative to panoptic intrusion into citizen’s political associations. While there can be no doubt that the struggle for civil rights presented a unique danger for its supporters, this should not mean that only such perils warrant First Amendment protection.

The Foot in the Door on Internet Speech Regulation

Campaign finance has captured Congress’s attention once again, which rarely bodes well for democracy. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and (of course) John McCain have introduced the Honest Ads Act. The bill requires “those who purchase and publish [online political advertisements]to disclose information about the advertisements to the public…”

Specifically, the bill requires those who paid for an online ad to disclose their name and additional information in the ad itself or in another fashion that can be easily accessed. The bill takes several pages to specify exactly how these disclosures should look or sound. The bill also requires those who purchase $500 or more of ads to disclose substantial information about themselves; what must be disclosed takes up a page and a half of the bill.

The Federal Election Commission makes disclosed campaign contributions public. With this bill, large Internet companies (that is, platforms with 50 million unique visitors from the United States monthly) are given that task. They are supposed to maintain records about ads that concern “any political matter of national importance.” This category goes well beyond speech seeking to elect or defeat a candidate for office.

Why does the nation need this new law? The bill discusses Russian efforts to affect the 2016 election. It mentions the $100,000 spent by “Russian entities” to purchase 3,000 ads. The bill does not mention that Mark Penn, a former campaign advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, has estimated that only $6,500 of the $100,000 actually sought to elect or defeat a candidate for office. It also omits Penn’s sense of perspective:

Hillary Clinton’s total campaign budget, including associated committees, was $1.4 billion. Mr. Trump and his allies had about $1 billion. Even a full $100,000 of Russian ads would have erased just 0.025% of Hillary’s financial advantage. In the last week of the campaign alone, Mrs. Clinton’s super PAC dumped $6 million in ads into Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Hillary: The Candidate on Hillary: The Movie

This week, Hillary Clinton unveiled her proposals to reform campaign finance laws. Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s proposals would make it much more difficult to criticize, you guessed it, Hillary Clinton.

Accompanying the announcement is her new campaign video, which acknowledges the elephant in the room: Citizens United was a case about censoring a movie that criticized Hillary Clinton. But rather than this biasing her opinion on the case, the video argues that her connection to the case gives her insight because “she knows firsthand what it’s done to our democracy.”

Clinton has pledged to use overturning Citizens United as a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, and she also supports a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

This wouldn’t be the first time a politician pushed to censor criticism as a public service. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything that might bring “the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States into disrepute or to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States.” Maybe we should just resuscitate that law and add the name “Hillary Clinton.”

According to her video, Citizens United was “a conservative organization that wanted to bring down Hillary Clinton’s candidacy because they didn’t like who she is, they don’t like what she stands for”–in other words, the quintessence of political speech protected by the First Amendment. Yet, because Hillary: The Movie was funded by a corporation–a nonprofit corporation founded to forward conservative causes–the movie and its accompanying advertisements ran afoul of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In short, the government was explicitly censoring political speech.    

In Clinton’s words, according to the Associated Press: “I want to tell you, Citizens United was about me. Think how that makes me feel. A lot of people don’t know that, but the backstory is eye-opening.”

Campaign Finance Censors Lose Debate to Reddit

Yesterday, the website Reddit, which is aptly called “the front page of the Internet,” featured an interesting discussion on attempts to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in elections. A group of five people working to overturn the decision fielded questions from the community in a so-called “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread. Past AMAs have been created by a wide-range of famous and interesting people, including Jon Stewart and even Barack Obama.

The five advocates titled the thread “We’re Working on Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision – Ask Us Anything!” Fielding questions were Aquene Freechild from Public Citizen, Daniel Lee from Move to Amend, John Bonifaz from Free Speech for People, Lisa Graves from Center for Media and Democracy, and Zephyr Teachout former candidate for New York governor and associate professor of law at Fordham University.

At the beginning of the AMA they proclaimed:

January 21st is the 5th Anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision that unleashed the floodgates of money from special interests.

Hundreds of groups across the country are working hard to overturn Citizens United. To raise awareness about all the progress that has happened behind the scenes in the past five years, we’ve organized a few people on the front lines to share the latest.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the AMA was a disaster. Reddit caters to younger people and, as such, it is generally quite left-wing. The Reddit “Politics” community, in particular, is known for having a substantial left-wing tilt. I had thought the community would rally around the advocates—pat them on the back, complain about the Koch brothers, and pontificate on how no “real” policy change can occur until “big money” is silenced.

Instead, the community not only asked excellent and difficult questions, but they clearly identified the fundamental problems with the advocates’ position.

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

Raising Big Money to Fight Big Money?

In the latest of many enthusiastic National Public Radio reports on Professor Lawrence Lessig and his efforts to remove money from politics, Lessig outlines big plans:

In 2016, we want to raise a substantially larger amount of money - could be 200 million, could be 800 million - so that we can win a Congress committed to fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded.

Well, if spending $800 million in billionaires’ contributions to “win a Congress” won’t knock out big money, what will?

But even if he does raise this kind of money, Lessig might find himself disappointed. You can’t always get what you want, even if you’ve got a lot of money to throw around. From John Connally’s “$13 million delegate” in 1980 to Ross Perot’s $65 million campaign in 1992 to Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, and Jeff Greene in 2010, the candidates with the most money sometimes fail badly. Or take the billion dollars that Republican groups planned to spend in 2012 to take back the Senate and the White House. 

Given the consistently low priority Americans have placed on “campaign finance reform” for decades and up to the present – the lowest priority in this 2012 Pew poll, save for global warming – even $800 million may not be enough to sway the voters.

John Samples has raised many questions about the advisability of campaign spending restrictions in articles such as this one.

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