With "dark money" expected to play a huge part of the 2012 federal election cycle, Illinois' senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is pushing for a new public finance system for congressional candidates.
The 2012 federal election cycle is officially under way, and all indications are that the amount of untraceable money meant to influence campaigns around the country is going to outpace the torrent spent on the races decided in November of last year.
Unlimited fundraising and undisclosed spending, much of it in the form of independent expenditures for television spots and other political messaging, was made possible by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The controversial 5-4 decision has especially empowered corporations and wealthy individuals, allowing them to channel their resources to non-profits, such as the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity, that don't have to disclose who is giving them their dollars.
"Big-money donors, and corporations and lobbyists are spending tens of millions of dollars to elect candidates," Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said this morning at a Judiciary Committee hearing he convened in Washington. "It isn't just simply because of their love of our system of government."
The committee hearing focused on the Fair Elections Now Act as a response to the new fundraising environment created by Citizens United.
The legislation tries to give congressional candidates "the option to stop raising huge sums of money, giving them more time to work on the people's business" according to a statement from Durbin's office, by incentivizing small-donor contributions and federal matching funds.
Such a system is modest in some ways, placing no restrictions on the independent expenditures unleased by Citizens United.
The legislation includes the following provisions:
- It’s voluntary – no candidate for Congress is compelled to use this system.
- Candidates must raise a minimum level of small individual contributions from people in their state, in order to demonstrate viability and qualify for the program.
- Once they qualify, candidates will abide by various restrictions and disclosure requirements.
- Qualified candidates will receive an up-front grant for their primary campaigns, and if nominated, another grant for their general election campaign.
- Candidates will also receive a 5:1 match for contributions of $100 or less from an individual; no individual involved in the matching may give more than $100 per election; that match will stop after a certain level is reached, but candidates may continue to raise donations of up to $100 per individual without a match.
- A new commission will administer the program, including the disbursal of funds and collection of reports.
- There is no overall spending limit. Candidates may continue to raise funds after they have reached the cap on their match.
- Participating candidates could take only individual contributions of $100 or less for their leadership PACs.
- No contributions, fundraising, or bundling will be allowed from PACs.
- There will be special provisions for candidates in uncontested races (at significantly lower funding levels).
While Durbin said today that he backed a bill similar to this one before Citizens United, much of the dicussion at today's hearing focused on the impact of that ruling.
One key element is the ability for donors to hide their contributions. Brennan Center for Justice attorney Monica Youn told the committee that more than one-third of the $280 million spent in independent spending during the 2010 federal election cycle was non-disclosed. "We have no idea who funded these campaign ads and what their agendas might be," she said.
The Karl Rove-created Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies group, for example, spent $15,184,029 on independent expenditures, communications, and other costs blasting Democratic candidates in the 2010 cycle, and another $479,619 supporting Republicans, without providing any disclosure. The group is affiliated with American Crossroads (which is required to disclose its donors), and together they have pledged to raise $120 million for the next election cycle.
"Corporate independent spending poses a major risk of corruption, functioning as the new soft money," Youn said. "Corporations view it as an investment, a quid pro quo to buy favorable treatment from elected officials."
Arguing for the status quo today was Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who has worked as legal counsel for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Mitchell said Durbin's legislation was an anachronism because of the internet's growing role in politics and the Obama campaign's fundraising success in 2008.
She advocated lifting the caps on how much people can donate to federal campaigns and claimed current transparency rules were sufficient. "There are disclosures required," she said. Her comments were met with skepticism, to say the least, by members of the committee, and Youn remarked that such requirements are "easily evaded" by sophisticated political entities.
Retired Republican Sen. Alan Simpson supports Durbin's bill, and told the committee today it's needed because, "The American people think we're on the take."