EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rep. Chris Van Hollen On Campaign Finance, Election Reform

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has, in recent years, become the leading force in the U.S. House of Representatives for campaign finance reform. As chief sponsor of the DISCLOSE 2012 Act, which was blocked from even getting a hearing in the Republican-controlled House and filibustered to death by the Republican minority in the Senate, he has been the chief advocate for greater transparency for outside groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS that keep their donors secret.

In an exclusive interview with ThinkProgress, Van Hollen expressed optimism that his Republican colleagues may be more open to DISCLOSE and other reforms next year after they too faced secret-money attacks in their own campaigns. Public pressure, he said, will be key in getting the legislation and other reforms aimed at mitigating the damage caused by the Supreme Court’s 5–4 Citizens United ruling. And, he noted, he hopes Federal Election Commission and election reform will also be priorities for the Obama administration and the 113th Congress.

Here are some highlights of Van Hollen’s comments:



The best I can say is I hope after this election, we have more converts on this issue. It was very ironic to hear [defeated] House Administration Committee Chairman Dan Lungren (R-CA) complain of all the secret outside money coming into his race. He refused to even hold a hearing on the DISCLOSE Act as Chairman, which meant we had to hold a “rump” hearing, not an official Congressional hearing. I think you’re going to see greater interest from our Republican colleagues. But this will only move with outside pressure. You’ve got people like Sen. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is the sworn enemy of disclosure. He did a 180 — he used to be for full transparency and disclosure. He opposed McCain-Feingold saying we need full disclosure, not this. Then he flip-flopped, after Citizens United. What gives me hope is the public is totally on the side of disclosure and transparency — they believe the public has a right to know who’s spending gobs of secret money to influence these elections. Other Campaign Finance Reforms:

I’m gonna continue to press on a number of fronts, including urging the IRS to determine whether or not a lot of these organizations were using the cover or their tax-exempt status in order to pursue political and electoral objectives, whether they’re meeting the tests that provide them with tax-exempt status and give them the ability to hide their donors… A number of other avenues dealing with shareholder rights with respect to corporate giving: both shareholder notice (at the very least, shareholders should be notified of corporate contributions) and shareholder approval. We saw a major development with Chevron contributing a lot of money to one of the Congressional super PACs [the company gave $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that ran attack ads against Democratic candidates]. There are corporations that essentially launder their money through other organizations to hide their identities, it’s important to shine a light on that secret money. A lot of corporations prefer to do their direct expenditure contributions in the dark.

Election Reform:

This is another important area: in addition to blatant efforts of some states to limit the democratic process, you also have indirect impediments placed on participation. Requiring someone to stand in line for 3–4 hours to vote is a limit on their rights. First, you had some states trying to limit the right to early voting. On top of that, [some states] created circumstances where you have long lines. It’s a clear impediment to people’s right to vote. It’s too early to say whether it’s bipartisan, but we’re working on a number of pieces of legislation now to deal with this set of issues. State-level Action:

I certainly commend the Attorney General of New York for pursuing [a state disclosure requirement, approved Tuesday by the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics]. I think if there’s no action at the federal level, people should pursue this at the state level. Maybe that will create an incentive for greater cooperation, for DISCLOSE and other legislation, so you’ll have a uniform system. If Republicans continue to block reforms at the federal level, they should pursue at the state level. Eight of the nine Supreme Court justices were in agreement [in the Citizens United case]… justices appointed by both Democrats and Republicans said disclosure is not only constitutional but important to health of democracy.

The Federal Election Commission:

I don’t have any particular recommendation for the President, other than to urge the President to try and do whatever he can to fix the mess at the FEC. The FEC has become mostly a dysfunctional organization. It’s difficult when you’ve got some FEC members who are determined to block it from doing its job.

Five of the six current Federal Election Commission commissioners are currently continuing despite expired terms, waiting for their replacements to be named and confirmed. Campaign finance advocates have encouraged President Obama to appoint new commissioners, but Senate confirmation is likely to be a challenge for any new nominees.