Issues

Campaign Finance Reform

What if the United States held an election season and no Super PAC money or other hard to trace or totally hidden special interest money showed up on our television or radio, or in print ads? Would voters think they were better off without that money in local, state, and federal elections?  Do they think this money is unduly influencing our democratic process, and are they right?  The answer to these questions is yes, and citizens want politicians to clean this mess up now.

Super PACs and otherac secretive funding groups known as “advocacy organizations” have changed campaigns, and not for the better. The New York Times wrote in an article entitled, “Super PACs Let Strategists Off the Leash,” that campaigns can now last longer. Candidates have a few very rich people who want to keep up, and are willing to pay for, extended attacks on opponents.  And there is an added benefit—no regular people involved.  The article quotes Bob Schuman, who ran a super PAC, Americans for Rick Perry.  The quote should make us all sit up and take notice. He said, “You don’t have kitchen cabinets made up of well-intentioned friends and neighbors who don’t know what they’re doing but eat up a lot of your time.” And, “Super PACs don’t have spouses.” These Super PAC funders and managers like the idea that just a few people can be heard over those annoying candidates, their spouses, and friends and neighbors, and that their special interests get special attention, even if they do not share the same interests as those annoying citizens.  

Recently, a Super PAC’s plan to run racially divisive ads against President Obama came to light before it was implemented, and everyone involved ran away from the idea, claiming they were shocked at this vicious plan. But there are more than 500 Super PACs now registered with the Federal Election Commission, and most of us understand why they are there. Ever since the Supreme Court’s misguided 2010 decision in Citizens United, Super PACs and other “advocacy” groups can accept unlimited money in a race. This is just wrong. Individuals can only contribute $2,500 in a primary and an additional $2,500 in the general campaign, and there are strict rules about identifying the donors. Traditional PACs, such as the National Education Association, which donates to me, and ExxonMobil, which donates to Congressman Frank Guinta, can only give $10,000. But now, they and others can give an unlimited amount of money to a Super PAC to attack or support either of us, as long as they don’t coordinate with us.  Super PACs can easily hide the money because it is extremely difficult to identify who owns private equity firms, and the “advocacy” organizations are not required to identify donors.

The Montana Supreme Court upheld a 100-year old state law last year that restricted corporate campaign funding. Even a hundred years ago, voters understood that Montana could be “especially vulnerable” to corporate control, because Montana’s state politics were controlled by mining and agricultural interests.  Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, agree with the 22 states and the District of Columbia who are trying to keep the US Supreme Court Citizens United decision from stopping Montana’s state laws that restrict corporate campaign money.

The Citizens United decision is outrageous, and I hope that the Court does review and overturn its decision.  But unless and until the United States Supreme Court acts, there are steps citizens and politicians can take.

First, Congress can pass a law requiring full disclosure. This simply means that if you donate money, you have to disclose who you are. I cosponsored that bill when I was in Congress.  Second, require companies to give shareholders a vote on political spending. Shareholders do not have the freedom of speech to say “no” to the corporate managers right now. Third, adopt public financing. The Fair Elections Now Act, which I also cosponsored, would give candidates public money if they demonstrated voter financial support for their candidacies. This would free the candidates from dialing for private dollars all the time, and reduce donor influence on members of Congress.

Polls show that the majority of voters want campaign finance reform.  I have asked Congressman Frank Guinta to join me and ask Super PACs and other outside groups who have secret money to stay out of our race. He has refused, but I will keep asking, because we have to start somewhere and we have to start now.



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