The Big Question: What Should be Done about Outside Spending?

By Sydelle Moore
The Hill | October 26, 2010

Some of the nation's top political commentators, legislators and intellectuals offer insight into the biggest questions burning up the blogosphere today.

Today's question: Campaign spending by outside groups has topped $257 million. What reform, if any, should be passed on spending by outside groups?

Mary Boyle, VP of communications for Common Cause, said:

A series of reforms are needed to deal with the flood of outside money that has defined these midterm elections.

First, the U.S. Senate must reconvene after the midterms and pass the DISLCLOSE Act to require commonsense disclosure sorely missing in this election. The House has already passed that bill, and the Senate must follow suit.

Second, we need voter-owned elections, not a corporate-controlled democracy. Congress must pass the Fair Elections Now Act, a voluntary system that would allow candidates to run competitive campaigns on a blend of small donations and funding that would come from a fee imposed on purchase of the broadcast spectrum. Read: No taxpayer dollars would be spent.

Third, and more long term, is we need to amend the constitution so that corporations are not recognized as individuals.

Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Congress Watch, a division of Public Citizen, said:

The country is drowning in special-interest money, corporate contributions, and massive spending funneled through outside groups, much of it secret. The resulting situation — where almost every other TV advertisement reflects vicious attack rhetoric about candidates — is both unpalatable and unfair to the American public.

We need four key reforms:

The first is the Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), which would create a voluntary system of campaign finance in which candidates could accept a mix of small donations and matching public funds. Similar systems have worked well in state elections in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, and they help to elevate the voices of ordinary constituents so that they are not drowned out by Wall Street, their conduit special interests like the Chamber, and their other big business front groups.

Second, to give voters the information they need and politicians the breathing room to consider opting into a system of small-donor-focused public financing, we need to require disclosure of the identities of who is paying for attack ads. To that end, the Senate must pass the DISCLOSE Act, a measure with the simple and laudable goal of increasing transparency around how much money corporations, unions and other special-interest groups are spending on elections.

In addition to being opaque, the 2010 spending appears limitless and without check. After the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, CEOs and their directors can simply dip into their corporate treasuries and spend that money on elections without seeking approval or even informing the people who own their company — the shareholders. In response to this issue, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) introduced the third reform we deem necessary, the Shareholder Protection Act, which would require prior shareholder approval of political spending for publicly held corporations. Investors should be protected from having their money used to support candidates at odds with their values.

To take a longer view, the Supreme Court's hostility to reasonable campaign finance regulation suggests we will need a constitutional amendment to ensure that major corporations can't drown out the voices of ordinary Americans.

We need an amendment to clarify that the speech of individual person should never be drowned out by that of artificial corporate entities, and to make clear that a corporation, which can't live, die, move next door to you, or vote, is not a person who should participate in election spending.

Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said:

The first reform that should be passed regarding outside spending is disclosure of the amount of money being spent, by whom, from whom, for what.  Current law may only be showing the tip of the iceberg.  Congress should take heed of the Supreme Court’s 8-to-1 ruling in Citizens United in favor of disclosure, stating that such disclosure is not only constitutional, but is the expected and indeed necessary counter-balance to the new corporate right to expend unlimited funds in US elections. 

Justice Kennedy’s 8-1 majority Opinion stated on this point:  “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. 

This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” Citizens United at 55.

The flood of outside spending – more than 5 fold the amount in the previous mid-term cycle – should also prompt a new discussion about the corruptive potential of independent expenditures. 

In the Citizens United case, the Court never really looked at whether independent expenditures are corruptive as a factual matter, but rather decided the question as a matter of law.  Certainly a candidate is going to look favorably upon the individual or interest which spent a significant amount of money to get that candidate elected, perhaps even more than a contribution which is likely a much smaller amount.  Such a spender is likely to get access and influence with the official just as a contributor would; again, even more so. 

This election cycle is likely to make clear that the Court’s lack of concern about the ability of large amounts of money to distort and corrupt the political process was a mistake and is worth revisiting.

Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com, said:

The first amendment applies to everyone — and what, precisely, is an "outside" group? Outside Washington, D.C.? The public employees' union spends to its heart's content — and no one objects. AIPAC's affiliated local committees spend millions — and we hear nary a peep.
Why is that?

Let a hundred flowers bloom, as Mao put it. Let a thousand voices be heard. The American people are smart enough to make their own decisions. 

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org, said:

Full disclosure.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/125903-the-big-question-what-should-congress-do-about-outside-spending