*This is one in a series of "Hackathon" projects that Student Strategy Team members put together throughout the course of the 2016-2017 school year.
Date: December 2, 2016
Campaign finance will continue to be divisive issue in American politics for years to come. As a Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service Student Strategy Team (SST), we attempted to examine this problem set and develop potential courses of actions which can be taken by policy makers to reform our current system.
Since 2002, the United States has seen major modifications to campaign finance policy, but the 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United and the lower-court’s decision, on SpeechNow.org v. FEC, can arguably be characterized as the most fundamental alterations to campaign finance law in the last century. Citizens United, eliminated the prohibition of corporate or labor union expenditures while, SpeechNow, permitted unlimited contributions supporting such expenditures and facilitated the conception of super-Political Action Committees (PACs).
While campaign finance continues to be the subject of intense debate there have been few recent legislative or regulatory changes. In most recent Congress, only two bills devoted to campaign finance policy progressed past introduction. Some believe that the Citizens United and SpeechNow rulings were an assault on our democratic process as the framers intent was not to give corporations the same rights of political expressions as individuals. Meanwhile others argue that Citizens United did not have the impact on the nondisclosure of the identity of contributors to certain non-profits or 501(c), but Congress could require disclosure without criminalizing individual and independent expenditures by and to PACs.
The SST recommends legislation that would end limits on the direct contribution of individuals - including corporations - and require full disclosure of any and all contributions. Currently, individuals and corporations alike can financially support a candidate’s campaign without disclosing their identity. Super PACs in turn are then able to advocate for a candidate and the candidate is bound by law not to coordinate with them. In this case, following corruption is more difficult once the candidate is in office if donors are not identified, especially those donating great sums of to super-PACs. Furthermore, in 2016, fewer than 400 families were responsible for almost half of the total campaign donations. With this money, especially when a majority of it is undisclosed in the form of super-PAC contributions, these wealthy families presumably carry greater influence amongst candidates than those who are financially constricted. In turn, candidates may hold a greater desire to help the rich in order to improve their chances of receiving big-money donations, and consequently, being re-elected.
The SST believes that elimination of limits on direct contributions would create greater transparency, increase autonomy of the candidates, and decrease barriers of entry into the political process. It is our belief that by eliminating the direct contributions limitations of individuals and requiring the full disclosure would significantly decrease the undue influence and the initial competitive necessity of PACs. Therefore, it is the SST recommendation that Congress pass legislation following the precedent set by states that already allow direct unlimited contributions to candidates in statewide races and use these examples to demonstrate how the direct contribution method has worked successfully on a statewide level and therefore should be implemented nationwide.
The SST selected courses of action (COA) based on the following criteria: SUITABILITY: Does it accomplish our proposed goals? FEASIBILITY: Do policy makers have the capability to accomplish this? ACCEPTABILITY: Is there advantage gained by executing this COA? DISTINGUISHABILITY: Each COA must differ significantly from the others. COMPLETENESS: Can we develop a plan around it. Our intent was to provide COAs that would position current and future policy makers with options while providing the flexibility to meet unforeseen events during execution.
Proposed Courses of Action
COA 1: Spending Caps On Contributions to Candidates
Goals: Increase transparency and equalize the influence on the election process
COA 2: Federally Funded Campaign Finance System
Goals: Reduce Corruption, Encourage Widespread Participation, and Promote a more Diverse Field of Candidates
COA 3: Direct Unlimited Contributions to Candidates
Goals: Eliminate direct contribution limits placed on individuals (including corporations) who wish to donate to candidates. Increase Transparency, Increase Autonomy of the Candidate, Decrease Barriers of Entry. All three goals relate directly to the idea of significantly decreasing the undue influence of Super PACs on elections by significantly decreasing the “initial competitive necessity” of the PACs
Course of Action Analysis
COA 2 Total Analysis Rating: 12/20
COA 3 Total Analysis Rating: 18/20
Based on our analysis, COA 3, which proposes direct unlimited contributions to candidates, is clearly the best course of action.
Direct Unlimited Contributions to Candidates
Goals: Increase Transparency, Increase Autonomy of the Candidate, and Decrease Barriers of Entry. All three goals relate directly to the idea of significantly decreasing the undue influence of super PACs by drastically decreasing their “initial competitive necessity”
Increase Transparency: Currently spending within the FEC guidelines is restricted to a candidate, party, or congressional committee. Donating to a super-PAC allows for the wealthy to contribute large sums of money at levels that lower-income donors cannot match. According to data from CrowdPac, the top .01% contributed 42% of all campaign donations in the 2012 election cycle. Furthermore, a Washington Post article in August of 2015 found that fewer than 400 families were responsible for almost half of the total campaign donations. With this money, especially when a majority of it is undisclosed in the form of Super-PAC contributions, these wealthy families presumably carry greater influence amongst candidates than those who are financially constricted. In turn, candidates may hold a greater desire to help the rich in order to improve their chances of receiving big-money donations, and consequently, being re-elected. 3 Additionally, Super PACs often circumvent donor disclosure requirements by taking money from sources that do not reveal their original donors, such as 501(c)(4) non-profit corporations and trade associations, including the Chamber of Commerce. In doing so, this directly contradicts Justice Kennedy’s rationale for deciding in favor of Citizens United which states that “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages”4 Under the SST’s proposed solution, candidates would only be able to take direct contributions from the original donors themselves. All contributions would require full original donor disclosure allowing the public to directly see who their candidates are receiving funding from.
Increase Autonomy of the Candidate: The financial decisions of Super PACs utilizing unlimited donor contributions cannot (by law) be made in coordination with the official campaign of a given candidate. Therefore, the contributions intended to support the beliefs of a given candidate do not always, reflect those intended beliefs (i.e. a Super PAC airing candidate ads that do not accurately portray the views of the candidate it supports). Direct and unlimited contributions would, eliminate the need for Super PACs by allowing candidates to control the financial decisions, political message, and overall general direction of their campaign. This creates a system that also more accurately represents the intentions of the donors themselves because they can be sure that their money is being used in ways that reflect the accurate beliefs of the candidate they have chosen to support.
Decrease Barriers of Entry: Current contribution limits from individuals to candidates directly affect the ability of so-called “new” candidates to successfully compete in elections, with “new” candidates being defined as relatively unknown candidates or those who lack significant initial financial resources. The current electoral system favors 1) “name brand candidates”, either in the form of those with well-known, prior experiencing running for a given office (i.e. McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012, Clinton in 2016) or in the form of established political dynasties (i.e. Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, etc.) and 2) candidates who are independently wealthy (Romney, Trump, etc.). In the case of the former, new candidates must often spend significantly more money in order to overcome the initial “recognition gap” to be seen as a viable candidate. In the case of the latter, new candidates lack the ability to contribute large sums of their own money to their campaign, and thus rely heavily on outside donors, who are, in the current system, either limited in their ability to directly contribute or forced to instead donate more money to candidate-affiliated Super PACs which may or may not reflect the intentions of the given candidate.5
Follow the precedent set by states that already allow direct unlimited contributions to candidates in statewide races (Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Virginia). Use these examples to demonstrate how this direct contribution method has worked successfully on a statewide level and therefore should be implemented nationwide.6 The strategy of highlighting individual state’s successful implementation of specific policy plans in order to advocate for subsequent national implementation has worked in the past. Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (a.k.a. welfare reform) was largely influenced by the success of a similar plan implemented by Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin in the late 80s and early 90s. Likewise, The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (a.k.a. Obamacare) drew many parallels to the “Health Connector Exchange” insurance policy that was successfully (and somewhat ironically) implemented in Massachusetts in 2006 under then-Governor Mitt Romney.
Based on our research, the SST believes the best solution is an amendment to The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) 7. This Act has already been amended seven times by Congress over the past 45 years (notably including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002)8, so there is sufficient precedent for changing the existing law. This would serve to benefit members of Congress both personally, allowing them to forgo the electoral “necessity” of Super PACs in favor of increased candidate autonomy over funds, and politically, as the public demand for campaign finance reform is high. As a result, the SST believes the amendment would have widespread congressional support.
Otherwise, with regards to specifically addressing the issues with Super PACS (i.e. reversing Citizens United), The SST does not think it is a feasible solution to try to enact our proposed reforms through “favorable” Supreme Court rulings (i.e. trying to replicate the success of McCutcheon v. FEC).
If our Student Strategy Team has learned one thing over the course of this semester, it’s that fixing the problems plaguing politics today is no easy task. A proposed solution to any given issue- no matter how perfect, no matter how flawed- will always have adversaries. For every supporter you manage to win over, there will always be an equally vehement opponent waiting in the wings to tell you a thousand and one ways your plan is destined to fail. With that in mind, we set out to fix what is arguably the biggest political problem facing our country today: Campaign Finance Reform.
If we can reach a consensus about any aspect of the current campaign finance system, it’s that something must change. To put it simply, the current system of campaign finance is not transparent. When the system lacks transparency, it lacks legitimacy. And when the system lacks legitimacy, the American people will not trust it. We cannot reasonably expect the public to trust their government when the very system that elects this government is so blatantly and unapologetically susceptible to corruption.
Based on the COA rating system designed and implemented by our SST, which considers factors ranging from bipartisan support to increased candidate autonomy, we concluded that unlimited direct contributions to candidates is the best course of action. It performed exceptionally well in all five of the selected criteria, notably receiving perfect scores in the categories measuring increased transparency, decreased barriers of entry, and increased candidate autonomy. Moreover, our SST would like to highlight the overall feasibility of this plan, as it bypasses the need for notoriously-unpredictable Supreme Court intervention and operates on the basis of past, successful precedents. On a similar note, due to widespread public demand for increased transparency in the current campaign finance system, we would expect this plan to receive widespread bipartisan support in Congress, allowing for the passage of substantive legislation enacting our proposed changes.
Campaign Finance Reform is many things. It’s a platform, it’s a buzzword, but most of all, it’s a problem that must be fixed. There will never a solution that satisfies every politician, every citizen, every interest group, or every lobbyist, but our SST firmly believes that our proposed Call of Action achieves the best possible balance between achieving our primary goal of increasing transparency and doing so within the confines of the politically-motivated world in which our elections take place.
The Student Strategy Team of Ryan Rockwell, Javon Price, Laura Bell, Jessica Scoratow, and Atreya Tadepali were advised by Michael Steel, Former Senior Advisor, Jeb! 2016; former Press Secretary, House Speaker John Boehner; Managing Director, Hamilton Place, and GU Politics Fall 2016 Fellow.