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The Hill - Price and Van Hollen: Citizens United anniversary shows need for campaign finance reform

January 29, 2015
Op-Ed & Article
The Hill - Price and Van Hollen: Citizens United anniversary shows need for campaign finance reform

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s deeply misguided Citizens Uniteddecision, which unleashed a tidal wave of outside money in our elections, with no end in sight. Each successive election since 2010 has seen an increase in the amount of money spent by candidates, parties, outside groups and individuals. The 2014 cycle cost close to $4 billion for congressional races, making them the most expensive midterm elections; the 2012 cycle cost $6.3 billion for presidential and congressional races, an overall record that will almost certainly be broken in the 2016 cycle. And much of that funding came from anonymous donors and organizations with minimal oversight from the Federal Election Commission.

All of this money is overwhelming and poisoning our political system. It purchases attack ads that saturate the airwaves without giving a clue whose money is behind them. These ads drown out other voices, sometimes even those of the candidates and parties themselves, taking our politics in extreme directions, emphasizing ideological purity at the expense of bipartisanship and cooperation. Numerous analysts have directly linked out-of-control campaign financing to congressional dysfunction.

The most effective solution would be a constitutional amendment or a reversal of the Supreme Court’s relevant decisions. Neither is likely at present, and the kind of broad reform we both favor thus faces formidable political and legal obstacles.

However, we strongly believe that Congress can still make significant progress by focusing on specific, targeted priorities. At a recent press conference, we joined colleagues from the Senate to announce that we will be reintroducing legislation to require disclosure of contributions by outside spending groups and to tighten the rules that prohibit collaboration between candidates and super-PACs that support them.

Even as it opened the floodgates in Citizens United, the Court made clear that requiring groups to disclose their donors or sponsors, forcing them to “stand by” their TV ads, was perfectly compatible with the First Amendment. Surely, anyone who feels strongly enough to provide tens of millions of dollars to support or defeat a political candidate should be willing to stand proudly by that investment, and voters have a right to know who is funding “independent” spending groups. That’s why we reintroduced the DISCLOSE Act. 

Disclosure used to be grounds for bipartisan agreement. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), perhaps today’s strongest congressional opponent of common-sense campaign finance reform, was once a supporter of robust disclosure requirements. Now, he portrays them as a threat to donor privacy and freedom of speech. Surely level-headed lawmakers from both parties can see through the spin and agree that, when it comes to elections, more transparency is never a bad thing.

Our second priority is ensuring that independent groups are not coordinating with the campaigns they support. In the 2012 election, some super-PACs for the first time dedicated themselves solely to the election of a single candidate. These super-PACs, sharing an objective, strategy and reason for existence with the campaigns, have now proliferated. Still they aren’t subject to donation caps because of their supposed independence. A combination of weak FEC regulations and rare enforcement has, in effect, removed the limits on contributions to individual political campaigns. 

Individual-candidate super-PACs and individual campaigns are also openly sharing everything from media strategies to B-roll for advertisements, exploiting a legal loophole that allows outside groups to essentially function as an extension of the campaign. This obviously violates the spirit of the statutory prohibition on coordination, but the provisions of the law are opaque and have not been effectively enforced.

That’s why we reintroduced the Empowering Citizens Act — legislation that would clarify and strengthen the ban on candidate coordination with outside spending groups. It would stop a candidate’s associates or family members from running a super-PAC supporting that candidate and would also limit the ability of candidates to raise money for super-PACs supporting them.

The unchecked and rapid rise of new organizations solely designed to circumvent campaign finance law should be a call to action for Congress. It is time to implement new, robust protections against coordination between campaigns and individual-candidate super-PACs. If coupled with adequate disclosure of the hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money spent each cycle, these reforms would mean real progress toward restoring faith in the electoral process. 

David Price has represented North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District from 1987 to 1995 and 1997 to the present. He sits on the Appropriations Committee. Chris Van Hollen has represented Maryland’s 8th Congressional District since 2003. He is the ranking member of the Budget Committee.