Trevor Potter's Remarks at The Brookings Institution Campaign Finance Solutions Summit

Trevor Potter
Jan 21, 2016
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Remarks by Trevor Potter, President of the Campaign Legal Center, delivered today at the Brookings Institution’s Campaign Finance Solutions Summit, supported by Issue One. Potter is a Non-Resident Fellow at Brookings and a Senior Advisor to Issue One.


I come before you today with both good news and bad news. Both are the same news, and that is: We have been here before.

109 years ago this month, Congress passed one of the first major laws geared toward reducing the corrupting influence of big money on American politics. The Tillman Act of 1907 banned corporate contributions to candidates for federal office, and was enacted in response to a crisis of money in politics that has many similarities with the one we confront at this summit today.

In the early 20th Century, waves of money from large economic interests swamped our elections, many of its sources hidden from the public. More and more citizens felt that government had become a tool of campaign contributors rather than responsive to average voters. State legislatures and Congress were seen as “in the pockets” of economic interests who perverted legislation to serve private purposes rather than the public good.

Disgust with this system spanned the political spectrum, from progressive Democrats to establishment Republicans. Elihu Root, the prominent Republican New York City corporate lawyer who later became Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt, declared that the influence of big money was “a constantly growing evil in our political affairs, which has, in my judgment, done more to shake the confidence of the plain people of small means in our political institutions than any other practice which has ever obtained since the foundation of our government.”

As a result of these concerns, Congress enacted significant campaign finance reforms in 1907. And again in the 1920s. And yet again in the 1940s. And in the 1970s, post-Watergate. And most recently in 2002, with McCain-Feingold. One rather cynical lesson which could be drawn from this history is that reform is impossible—narrow special interests will always find a way.

I believe, however, that the correct conclusion to draw from this troubled history is a different one: that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” True, secret and corrupting funding will always try to find a way into politics, but our democracy will only survive and succeed if its leaders push back against this influence, maintaining the flexibility and foresight to adopt new policies to regulate in the face of new challenges.

Today, we face many such challenges.

One is that five Supreme Court Justices see our Constitution and political system in a very different way than most of their predecessors did. They appear opposed, both ideologically and temperamentally, to any regulation of money in politics—and heedless of the consequences for our democracy, no matter how disastrous. But as the consequences of their flawed policies become clearer by the day, even some of them are forced to acknowledge, as Justice Kennedy recently did, that the system is “not working the way it should.”

Another challenge is the current transformation of the Federal Election Commission from a vitally important agency that emerged as one of the great triumphs of the post-Watergate reform movement, into an actual impediment to enforcement of the law. And I should know—I used to be the Chair of the FEC! In my time on the Commission, I worked hard to enforce the law both zealously and evenhandedly, and even though we regularly confronted issues that touched on some of the most controversial political questions of the time, the Commission almost never deadlocked 3-3 along partisan lines when voting on enforcement matters. FEC Chair Ann Ravel, who will follow me to this podium, will tell us just how destructive the current partisan paralysis at the Commission has become.

The challenges we face today are the result of several failures of our system of government: the failure of five Justices on the Supreme Court to recognize the reality of money’s corrupting influence, and the failure of the FEC, IRS, and other regulators to enforce the important campaign finance laws that the Supreme Court has left on the books, such as contribution limits and full disclosure of money spent in elections.

Then we have the failure of Congress to enact new legislation in response to this crisis, such as the citizen funding and FEC reform bills that have been proposed. One reason for this is that Congress has become completely addicted to the current flawed model of campaign funding. Fundraising weekends at resorts, many hours of breakfast, lunch, cocktail receptions, and dinners, plus “call time” for hours each day that members are in Washington, have changed representatives into beggars, and give well-financed interests a near-stranglehold on their time and attention. Democratic Congressman Steven Israel, who will be with us today, has just announced his retirement from Congress, citing insatiable demands for time for fundraising as a principal reason. Republican Congressman David Jolly has just proposed that members of Congress be banned from soliciting contributions personally while in office to address this problem.

These combined failures have created a government derided by the Left as a corrupted political system that promotes economic inequality by enacting policies favored by billionaires, and derided by the Right as a corrupted political system that promotes crony capitalism, union entitlement, and government waste.  And it is a system derided most of all by voters: more than 80% of voters in both parties, according to one recent poll, believe the government and our political system is out of touch with the average citizens it is meant to represent.

We are gathered today to discuss what can be done and what should be done—indeed, what must be done to resolve this crisis. And we are gathered not a moment too soon.

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