Overflow crowd packs Federal Election Commission hearing on campaign finance limits

Projection outside the US District Court Building in San Francisco on the 5th anniversary of the "Citizens United" ruling. (Photo credit: Prg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons)

The Federal Election Commission held a rare public hearing this week. The all-day, standing-room-only event came after the FEC received 32,000 comments about potential changes to federal campaign finance laws following the  Supreme Court’s controversial “McCutcheon” decision.    Ashley Westerman reports from Washington, D.C.  that at the end of the hearing  there was little consensus on what action the  FEC should take.

Download Audio

Wednesday’s hearing at the Federal Election Commission was supposed to be about campaign finance regulations after last year’s Supreme Court’s ruling on McCutcheon vs. FEC, which removed aggregate limits on individual donations to political parties of candidates for federal office.

What it ended up happening was the airing of grievances by advocates and government-interest groups on a wide range of  campaign finance issues – from bitcoin donations to the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision.

Government Affairs Lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division Craig Holman was one of the over 30 witnesses and panelists to testify. He blamed the FEC itself for allowing dark money – essentially, undisclosed donations – to plague federal elections.

“This was not the creation of any court decision, it was not the creation of any act of Congress,” said Holman. “It was a product of a rule that you passed in 2007, redefining disclosure as required under the bi-partisan Campaign Reform Act.”

That change created a loophole that allows political action committees to bypass disclosure rules provided donations don’t directly support a candidate. For example, spending on broadcast ads to further an issue or agenda does not have to be made public prior to the vote.

Glenn Conway traveled all the way from North Carolina to testify on what happened during the Senate race between Democrat Kay Hagen and Republican Thom Tillis. The race cost $111 million dollars with about 75 percent coming from outside groups and PACs.

“For three months we were carpet bombed with negative ads by PAC after PAC,” he told hearing attendees. “These PACs often provided erroneous and fraudulent information to voters, which was designed to confuse and mislead them. The messaging in the ads was so relentless and so similar, it was impossible to separate one super PAC from another.”

Campaign finance reform advocates say changes to disclosure rules along with the Supreme Court’s rulings on Citizens United and McCutcheon have allowed a small group of wealthy people to take control of federal elections.

Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout says wealthy people, companies or groups effectively sponsor politicians and thereby limit public options.

“A political system populated by these sponsored politicians doesn’t leave much choice for the public. They have the power to vote but their practical power is only to choose between candidates that have been selected by these sponsors.”

Other witnesses, namely Conservative-interest groups and GOP representatives, argued that more private money will actually help the political process. The Coolidge-Reagan Foundation’s founder Shaun McCutcheon said any further rule-making goes against the High Court decision that people have a fundamental right to financially support however many candidates they choose.

“And I don’t just say that because my name is on it,” said the former plaintiff in the Supreme Court case. “No matter whose name appears, the case was a stunning reaffirmation of individual liberty. It would certainly dis-serve the American people if we were to chip away at its foundation.”

In both the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the arguments that political campaign contributions are a form of constitutionally-protected free speech.

Data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics found that spending by outside groups on federal elections skyrocketed from $338 million in 2008 to over $1 billion in 2012. And the 2016 Presidential Election is expected to be flooded with even more outside money. Just last week billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch announced they plan to spend $900 million in the 2016 election.

But how the FEC should regulate this spending in light of the Supreme Court rulings is unclear. Suggestions brought forth at the hearing included everything from revamping coordination rules for PACS and candidates to changing the number of FEC commissioners. The FEC currently consists of six members – three Democrats and three Republicans.

Stanford University Political Scientist Bruce Cain questioned if the FEC even has the regulatory authority: “I believe it’s the responsibility of the Congress, Supreme Court and state legislatures to experience with ways to deal with this constraint that the court has given to us but still address these very real problems of fairness and polarization.”

A package of reform bills was introduced in Congress on January 21 – the fifth anniversary of “Citizens United.” Among them was the re-introduction of the so-called Democracy for All Amendment, which would give Congress constitutional authority over campaign financing laws. The amendment failed last September to get enough support for a full vote by the Senate.

You may also like...