Koutoulas: What is campaign finance reform?

Published 10:07 am Thursday, February 6, 2020

Last week, the online news site Axios broke the story that a new “independent expenditure group” will pour money into Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race to defeat Mitch McConnell.

Other outside groups are raising and spending money in Kentucky to keep McConnell in office.

Let that sink in. People and organizations with hoards of money, who may have no ties whatsoever to Kentucky, are using their resources to influence how you vote for your congressional representatives.

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Groups are spending record amounts to elect this or that person or defeat another. Some of these groups have the best of intentions — others are strictly motivated by darker forces. But regardless of their intent, the end result is that money is being used to influence the vote.

They are trying to buy your vote.

As stated in a recent column, campaign finance is a major distraction and a corrupting influence on our political process. No one seriously questions the obvious fact campaign donations grant the donor more access to the candidate — who is or might become an elected legislator or executive. This is explicitly undemocratic; it goes against the grain of everything our nation was founded upon.

Past reforms have helped — for a while. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971, greatly expanded in 1974, started the modern era of campaign finance reform. The act established the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and put limits on campaign contributions, as well as adding disclosure requirements.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 — also known as McCain-Feingold — was an effort led by Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold. The act was passed by both houses of Congress end signed into law by President George W. Bush.

BCRA eliminated so-called “soft money” donations to national party committees. It banned the use of corporate or union money to pay for electioneering communications.

Unfortunately, all of these acts have been weakened or entirely overturned by other legislation and by the disastrous Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court discussed here two weeks ago.

How do we fix the current mess? There are a few proposals out there.

The one most people are familiar with is the movement to amend the Constitution to eliminate corporate financing of election campaigns. This would effectively roll back Citizens United.

Another proposal, sometimes referred to as “clean money” financing, includes a feature that funnels all donations through the FEC. Rather than send one’s donation directly to the campaign of a particular candidate, the donation would go to the FEC with a candidate designation.

This would remove the incentive to seek to influence the candidate through one’s contribution since the candidate would never know who contributed the money.

Other proposals focus on various schemes to move the country towards public financing of all federal elections. Some of these proposals involve allowing only minimal donations from individual private donors, to be matched by public dollars. This idea would encourage campaigns to seek large numbers of small-money donors — arguably a more democratic and less corrupting practice than accepting huge donations from corporations.

Others have proposed that all private fundraising be eliminated; all federal campaigns would be financed entirely from public money. This might be achieved through a combination of federal budget items and private donations to a collective pool, to be shared among candidates who meet specific guidelines.

One objection sometimes offered in response to proposals to limit campaign contributions and private advertising is that these restrictions violate the constitutional protection of free speech.

In response to this concern, a somewhat more complicated proposal comes in the form of a constitutional amendment being championed by a group called CFR28.

The group aims to confront the dilemma of how to restrict private political action committee spending while addressing free speech concerns. There are too many moving parts to this intriguing idea to go into here, but you can read more about it at their website, campaignfinancereform.org.

To be sure, campaign finance isn’t the only problem with American elections or our government. But it is arguably the one thing that would have the most significant impact if fixed.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Facebook at fb.me/PeteTheSun.