This week, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton unveiled a plan for comprehensive campaign finance reform, including a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling that led to the rise of super PACs.
In the proposal, Clinton outlines several actions she could take on her own if elected president, such as an executive order requiring all government contractors to disclose their campaign contributions. But the majority of the steps require help from Congress — which has blocked all efforts in recent years to reign in corporate influence in elections — and others depend on actions from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Federal Election Commission (FEC). These two agencies, lead by President Obama’s appointees, have repeatedly refused to create new, stronger regulations of money in politics or even enforce existing rules.
Despite this bleak outlook, reform advocates like President Robert Weissman of Public Citizen are praising Clinton’s plan as a vital first step.
“Americans think the political system is fixed, rigged on behalf of corporations and the super rich, and they’re right,” he told ThinkProgress. “The single most important vehicle for that rigging is campaign spending. So we need strong rules that stop corporations from dominating the political process, which will make it possible to carry forward a progressive agenda that’s otherwise blocked by the power of the donor class.”
Acknowledging that Clinton’s campaign and affiliated super PAC are currently raking in millions from large donors, hedge funds, and Wall Street titans, Weissman said it’s up to the candidates to put forward a strong agenda, but it’s up to the public to hold them to it.
“It’s the same as campaign promises around tackling climate change and raising the minimum wage,” he said. “Politicians have to be held accountable by an organized population. We can’t get excited about a candidate then stand down after the election and leave things up to their good faith.”
Clinton’s proposal includes promises to appoint Supreme Court justices who, in her words, “value the right to vote over the right of billionaires to buy elections.” She also called for a new system for publicly financing elections that would match donations from small donors, saying it would “empower all citizens to fully participate and have their voices heard.”
Clinton says she will also advocate for the SEC to issue a rule requiring all publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending, including currently secret outside spending, to their shareholders. Several Democratic Congress members recently demanded the same thing from the agency — though SEC head Mary Jo White has proven herself unlikely to take any step to limit Wall Street’s power.
In a video released by her campaign this week, Clinton explained why campaign finance reform is a personal issue for her, laying out how the 2010 Supreme Court case that unleashed a flood of secret money in elections began as a corporate-funded attack on her 2008 candidacy. “They took aim at me, but they ended up hurting our entire democracy,” Clinton says in the video. “So we have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our election, corrupting our political process and drowning out the voices of regular people.”
Clinton may feel some heat on this issue, however, from a new entrant into the race for the Democratic nomination. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig announced this week that he is running for president on a platform focused solely on comprehensive campaign finance and redistricting reform.
Lessig said in e-mail to ThinkProgress that Clinton’s proposal is “amazing” but “not enough.”
“I’m running a referendum presidential campaign to fix this issue first,” he said. “If I were elected, I would have a clear, earth-shaking mandate that could break big money’s stranglehold and begin to make government work again for all Americans. A multi-issue presidential campaign platform just won’t get us there.”
Public Citizen’s Weissman noted that there are other crucial executive branch reforms left out of Clinton’s plan. “The IRS could and should issue a rule that could crack down on secret political campaign spending by ‘social welfare’ 501c4 non-profits,” he said. “They are currently working to clarify what counts as political speech, but they won’t be done until 2017, and it won’t meaningfully stop the spending.”
Still, Weissman called the plan “robust” and said the only other way to achieve these reforms other than having a champion in the White House, is if a major scandal breaks.
“The Abramoff scandal brought immediate, though inadequate lobbyist reform,” he noted. “So we know that in response to crisis and scandal, Congress acts. The problem is that so much of what is scandalous and corrupt is legal, or at least permitted. There is so much money sloshing around, so many extreme demands made by donors. Scandals are probably occurring with some frequency, they just need to be brought to light.”