Despite Ballot Measures, Action Not Expected On Addressing Money In Politics

November 14, 2012
Matthew Blake

The financing of political campaigns is one area where the gap between what voter’s want and what the law of the land is appears vast.

In last week’s election, there were referenda in Illinois and across the country calling for nothing less than an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in order to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Yet U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) pretty much acknowledged to Crain’s Chicago Business that Congress has no interest in passing campaign finance reform laws.

Durbin, who Crain’s notes is, “arguably the U.S. Senate’s leading proponent of campaign finance reform”, tells the business publication that “there is no appetite for campaign finance reform on the other side of the aisle.” Any law that seeks to regulate money in political campaigns would need Republican support to clear a Senate filibuster.

Uniform GOP opposition to campaign finance regulation was not always so. In 2002, U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, teamed with former U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, to pass the bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act.

But the Supreme Court eroded much of the 2002 law’s teeth, culminating in Citizens United, when the majority ruled that corporations and unions can spend as much money as they want on political races so long as they do not directly coordinate with the candidates.

The decision let Super Political Action committees and so-called dark money groups, who do not have to disclose their donors, spend millions on this year’s presidential and congressional campaigns, bombarding the airwaves with negative advertising.

Citizens United's visible consequences may have had an impression on voters.

In the ten different Illinois townships where the referendum made the ballot, voters decisively backed a constitutional amendment. Seventy five percent of voters backed the measure in Chicago, 85 percent in Oak Park, and 68 percent in Carbondale. The lowest level of support was in Lisle Township where “only” 62 percent of voters supported constitutionally overturning Citizens United.

“The outcome was phenomenal,” says Steve Alesch, a Warrenville resident, who organized to place the referendum on the ballot.

Skeptics could chalk up such overwhelming support in Illinois, and also towns in Massachusetts and a referendum in San Francisco, to a disproportionate share of progressive, blue state voters.

But statewide initiatives in red state Montana and swing state Colorado picked up more than 70 percent of voter support.

On those referenda, voters were asked whether the state legislature should support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Alesch says that the next step for the Illinois Move to Amend campaign is the Prairie State’s own statewide initiative.

But it is unclear what the next step is after that one.

The threshold for actually amending the constitution is, of course, very high: the approval of 3/4 of all state legislatures, 2/3 of the U.S. Senate, and 2/3 of the U.S. House.

What the referenda has perhaps accomplished is showing that, as one Salon headline put it, “Everyone Hates Citizens United.” But, beyond that, Durbin tells Crain’s that only a major scandal will galvanize bipartisan federal action in response to this public discontent. McCain, who years ago abandoned his campaign finance reform advocacy, said the same to The Hill newspaper this summer.

Some campaign finance reform watchdogs wonder about focusing on the constitutional amendment.

David Morrison, deputy director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says that he is “pleasantly surprised” by how the referenda fared. “But the constitutional amendment is a long-term goal and a solution that won’t happen for years,” Morrison says.

“It is pretty clear that the Supreme Court will strike down anything short of an amendment,” adds Alesch.

But Morrison has a couple of proposals that might pass constitutional muster. One is a statewide law that would enforce the wall between candidates and Super PACs. For example, the state could investigate to make sure that a Super PAC pouring millions into a campaign on behalf of one candidate did not directly coordinate with that candidate.

Another is the Disclose Act, sponsored by Rhode Island Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to make dark money groups disclose their donors. But Whitehouse is so far stymied by the absence of GOP support, including a lack of backing from McCain.


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