December 4, 2012 - Legal Center Urges Members to Support The Empowering Citizens Act to Overhaul Broken Campaign Finance System
Today, the Campaign Legal Center urged Members to support The Empowering Citizens Act (ECA), introduced in the 112th Congress by Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) to overhaul the way federal campaigns are financed. In a letter to the House of Representatives, Legal Center Executive Director J. Gerald Hebert and Policy Director Meredith McGehee, touted the bill as the best measure currently pending in Congress that uses federal matching money to encourage small contributions to presidential and Congressional candidates. The legislation also contains comprehensive reforms to reign in Super PACs.
The full text of the letter follows below.
December 4, 2012
The millions of dollars that Super PACs and so-called “dark money” groups poured into the 2012 federal elections raise serious questions about the health of our election system and the vitality of our democracy. The Campaign Legal Center strongly urges you to support efforts to significantly overhaul the current federal campaign finance system by enacting new, meaningful incentives for smaller individual contributions.
The Empowering Citizens Act (ECA), introduced in the 112th Congress by Representatives David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), is a vital reform and is the best measure currently pending in Congress that uses federal matching money to encourage small contributions to presidential and congressional candidates. Equally important, the ECA contains the first comprehensive reform proposals to deal with Super PACs.
Regardless of how you feel about the sheer magnitude of the money spent to influence the outcomes of the elections, there is no doubt that a system in which just one quarter of one percent (0.26%) of all Americans make a campaign contribution of $200 or more falls woefully short of engaging its citizens in a critical component of the democratic process – helping support the campaigns of the candidates they support.
Instead, the current system relies on – and is dominated by – large donors. Only five percent of one percent (0.05%) of Americans give the maximum contribution to congressional candidates and only 0.01% give $10,000 total. The rise of Super PACs has exacerbated the problem. Some 200 individuals were responsible for 80% of all Super PAC contributions. Moreover, “dark money” groups -- the (c)(4) social welfare organizations and the (c)(6) trade associations that do not disclose the sources of the funds – reportedly spent more than $200 million in the elections.
The American people understand what is going on. A recent poll found that one in four Americans say they are less likely to vote because big donors to Super PACs have greater influence over elected officials. Nearly 70 percent of Americans believe Super PAC spending will lead to corruption. As The Washington Post recently editorialized, “Both the remarkable size of the checks written by big contributors in 2012 and the fact that a sizable chunk of the contributions was not publicly reported nurture a climate ripe for corruption.”
Democracy is strongest when citizens are informed and can more easily become engaged voters; and when public policies strengthen the principle of “one person, one vote” rather than undermine it as the current system does. Criticizing the current process does not necessarily imply a belief that money is evil, or that money buys elections or that candidates for President or Congress are inherently corrupt. Rather, as the Courts have repeatedly found, it recognizes that campaign contributions have the potential to corrupt and to create the appearance of corruption, as the evidence submitted to the Supreme Court in the McConnell v. FEC case demonstrated.
The best way to achieve a healthier balance in our campaign finance system is to change the incentives for both candidates and donors. The vast majority of incentives in the current system guide candidates to pursue large donations. In the last few months of the presidential campaign, candidates Romney and Obama were doing as many as five fundraisers a day. Compare that to 1984 when President Ronald Reagan, who participated in the presidential public financing system, did zero fundraisers for his own reelection. There are few incentives for an individual who cannot afford to give thousands (or now millions) to contribute and feel, as the poll showed, that their contribution will make a difference in a system dominated by large money.
The ECA addresses these issues head on. It is the most comprehensive campaign finance bill pending in Congress. The ECA provides new incentives focused on smaller donations. It is a system modeled on the successful matching system used to finance New York City elections. Matching systems have a proven track record of success, and are notable for creating a system to leverage individual donations while allowing the political marketplace to continue to operate throughout the election period.
The ECA contains the first comprehensive proposals to deal with Super PACs, especially the candidate-specific Super PACs such as the ones that supported presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. By defining such PACs to be coordinated parts of the campaign of specific candidates, they would be subject to candidate contribution limits. The ECA also strengthens the law governing other outside groups’ coordination with candidates, prohibits federal candidates and campaigns from raising money for Super PACs while strengthening the ability of national parties to make coordinated expenditures with their candidates to respond to spending by Super PACs and other outside groups.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – which created a constitutional right for corporations to spend unlimited amounts independently of federal candidates or party committees – has been rightly criticized for its legal incoherence, judicial activism, naiveté of disclosure requirements for campaign spending, and equating of corporations with individuals. It is therefore understandable that there is some support for efforts to overrule the decision through a constitutional amendment. Yet, the process for an amendment is arduous and long, and such an amendment is extremely difficult to write so that it indeed achieves its goals.
In contrast, the ECA can be enacted quickly to address some of the most egregious problems in the system – both those created by the Court decision and those that have existed for years.
The Empowering Citizens Act deserves your support and provides an important starting point for the conversation – and action – that is so clearly called for after the 2012 elections. Addressing a campaign finance system out of control must be a priority for both parties in the 113th Congress.
J. Gerald Hebert Meredith McGehee
Executive Director Policy Director