On the Issues: Citizens United, Campaign Finance, and the Presidential Candidates

A majority of Americans believe that there is too much money in politics, including money spent by “outside groups” – those not affiliated with a campaign – in the run-up to elections. In responding to these concerns, presidential candidates Clinton, Trump, Johnson, and Stein have offered different ideas about how to reform the country’s campaign finance system.

The concern over outside spending has arisen in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which allows groups and individuals to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or attack candidates so long as these efforts are not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is an outspoken critic of this decision. Clinton has said that, as president, she would appoint justices to the Supreme Court “who recognize that Citizens United is bad for America,” and that she would,”if necessary…fight for a constitutional amendment that overturns it.” Clinton has also spoken in favor of a public financing system that matches and amplifies small contributions with federal funds.

Yet some question whether Clinton is truly committed to these pledges. Clinton is the beneficiary of a network of super PACs – unaffiliated groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money (subject to disclosure requirements). As of July, outside groups supporting Clinton have raised more than $100 million.

Some of the super PACs are led by Clinton’s colleagues, including Priorities USA Action (run by Guy Cecil, a staffer on Clinton’s 2008 campaign) and Correct the Record (run by David Brock, a long-time Clinton supporter). Clinton has dispatched her husband and campaign chairman John Podesta to solicit contributions to these super PACs and has even requested them herself at fundraising events.

Despite her reliance on and even embrace of super PACs, her supporters are eager to reaffirm her commitment to campaign finance reform. In 2015, her campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin called such reform “a top priority” for Clinton and said that she could not afford to “unilaterally disarm” by disavowing super PAC support during the campaign.

Like Clinton, Donald Trump has also called for campaign finance reform while benefitting from campaign ads paid for by super PACs. Thus far, pro-Trump super PACs have raised nearly $10 million.

Throughout the campaign, Trump criticized his fellow candidates for relying on super PACs. In October 2015, Trump said all presidential candidates should “disavow” their super PACs and claimed they were “in cahoots…which they’re not allowed to be.” And at a debate in March 2016, Trump called super PACs “corrupt” and said that they are “total control of the candidates,” adding that he is “the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system.”

Trump insisted throughout the primaries that he is immune to corruption because of his ability to self-fund his campaign and because of his support from small donations. Yet after clinching the nomination, Trump turned to big donors.

In late May, a fundraising event sponsored by Tom Barrack pulled in approximately $6 million, and a week later, Barrack created the super PAC Rebuilding America Now. This pro-Trump has been competing for donations with another pro-Trump super PAC, Great America PAC, created by GOP strategist Ed Rollins.

The competition arose because of a split within the Trump campaign: his campaign chairman Paul Manafort wanted donations to be steered toward Rebuilding America Now, Barrack’s group, while Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, preferred Rollins’ Great America PAC. Despite his campaign’s orientation toward larger donors and super PACs, Trump still remains committed to “fix” what he has called a broken and corrupt campaign finance system.

In making this pledge, Trump has not been specific about how he would reform the system. He has criticized the Citizens Uniteddecision and said that “transparency” is essential (which is mandated of super PACs but not of tax-exempt 501(c) groups). He has also said he might consider accepting public financing for his campaign, but this would entail a limit on spending – a prospect that, given the expected cost of the election, seems unlikely.

Green Party nominee Jill Stein has been outspoken on both issues: Citizens United and the importance of public financing of campaigns.

Stein has said that the decision that spawned super PACs should be reversed. She favors amending the Constitution to undercut the bases of that decision: that corporations are entitled, like individuals, to civil liberties, and that curbing money spent on electioneering communications amounts to a restriction of free speech.

Stein also supports public financing of campaigns. She has said that “elections should be public funded entirely” and that it would be better if candidates were “not in the business of fundraising at all.” In place of that, she said, she also supports the use of anonymous online donations so that “people donate because they support the cause, not because they think you’re going to do something for them.”

Though Stein failed to win 5 percent of the popular vote as the Green Party nominee in 2012 (which would have qualified her for a grant from the Federal Election Commission this year), Stein has secured public financing through another route. Having raised more than $5,000 in at least 20 states, Stein has qualified to receive “matching funds” of $100,000 and can secure up to $48 million in total federal funding. Thus far, Stein has raised more than $850,000.

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, holds positions quite opposite those of Stein.

Johnson has spoken in favor of the Citizens United decision, citing its basis in the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. This position is in accordance with the Libertarian Party’s 2016 platform, which calls for “the repeal of all laws which restrict voluntary financing of election campaigns.”

Johnson also agrees with the platform in opposing government subsidies for campaigns. Though Johnson encouraged voters to support him in 2012 to help reach the 5 percent threshold, Johnson has recently stated his opposition to public financing of campaigns. He believes that they, like restrictions on independent political activities, are not only contrary to libertarian principles but also unfairly advantageous to incumbents.

Instead of relying on government assistance, Johnson is launching a small donor campaign called #15for15, which seeks to raise $1.5 million and to gain the momentum necessary to qualify for the presidential debates (15 percent in the polls). The Johnson campaign claims to have received 40,000 donations of at least $15 and has raised $1.3 million as of July.

Voters for whom campaign finance is an important issue have candidates with diverse opinions and practices from whom to choose.

For those who want to see independent political activity regulated through a repeal of Citizens United, Clinton, Stein, and perhaps Trump are possible choices, while those who agree with the decision will find a candidate to support in Johnson. And those who support the public financing of campaigns might consider Clinton and Stein (and, again, perhaps Trump), whereas those who oppose this program can rely on Johnson.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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