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Latest Crack at Campaign Finance Reform Not Pleasing Free-Speech Advocates

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) call their Follow the Money Act of 2013 a bipartisan compromise.

Rodrigo Sermeño


May 7, 2013 - 12:08 am

WASHINGTON – Two senators recently unveiled a bipartisan proposal that seeks to address the influx of anonymous federal election spending and bring transparency and consistency to campaign finance law.

The Follow the Money Act of 2013, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would require corporations, special-interest groups, and super PACs to disclose their spending on political campaigns. Wyden has been a firm supporter of campaign finance reform, pushing for greater disclosure in election spending following the Citizens United decision in 2010.

“These reforms reflect the belief that where there’s significant campaign spending, everyone has to play by the same rules and that voters deserve to know where the money is coming from and where it’s going,” said Wyden in a press conference to announce the bill. “This will bring an end to the most flagrant abuses that have made a mockery of campaign finance and tax law.”

The current disclosure of independent spending requires some business models to make significant disclosures while others are required nearly none. The bill’s aim is to close loopholes in federal spending election campaign law by creating a universal system of disclosure for independent spending irrespective of the spender, or as the bill’s text describes it, “disclosure, for disclosure’s sake.”

Republicans blocked a similar bill, the Disclose Act, last July introduced by Senate Democrats over concerns that the legislation favored labor unions and other groups while requiring corporations to disclose their campaign spending.

“What you’re seeing in this proposal that is different than you have seen in the Disclose Act that was before the Senate last summer and then prior to, is that this is a bill designed to be bipartisan,” said Murkowski.

Murkowski, who along with her fellow GOP senators opposed the Disclose Act, noted that the Follow the Money Act is “a bill that is designed to be even across the board, absolutely transparent in all aspects of it.”

During the press conference, the Alaska senator alluded to her 2010 campaign in which she had to win reelection as a write-in candidate after she lost the Republican primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate.

“We’ve all had to go through an election,” Murkowski said. “Some of us have been the beneficiaries of some of this independent expenditure activity. Some of us have been on the receiving end of some pretty directed campaigns.”

Under the bill, small spenders are subject to lesser requirements in concurrence with court decisions suggesting that reporting can reduce speech by small contributors and impose burdens to First Amendment rights.

The bill would also direct the Federal Election Commission to establish a new reporting system for contributions so that the public can monitor independent spending and candidate campaign contributions in “real time.” The legislation raises the threshold for reporting of direct contributions to candidates from the low $200 to $1,000 and creates two options for groups looking to preserve donor anonymity. The bill requires any group that spends at least $10,000 on an election to disclose all of its donors who donated $1,000 or more. Currently, tax-exempt 501(c) organizations that engage in political spending have no legal obligation to reveal their donors.

In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court struck down a longstanding prohibition on corporate and union spending in politics. The court decision states that political spending to support individual candidates constitutes a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the federal government cannot deny corporations or unions the rights to spend. The court described disclosure as “a less restrictive alternative to more comprehensive regulations of speech,” and said it is essential so “citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”

More importantly, Citizens United opened the floodgates for super political action committees (PACs). Super PACs cannot contribute directly to a candidate but can run advertisements in favor or against a political candidate. Between 2008 and 2012, outside spending increased by more than 225 percent and totaled approximately $1 billion in the 2012 elections. Only a record-low 41 percent, out of a total $41 billion spent on television and radio advertisements by independent groups, was fully disclosed, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The American Civil Rights Union (ACLU) praised the Murkowski-Wyden bill, saying that it does many things better than competing proposals, but warned of the unintended consequences of donor disclosure.

“There is no question the public has a legitimate interest in knowing who is corruptly spending scads of cash trying to influence voters and lawmakers. Absent anonymity, some donors—on both the left and the right—will simply not donate out of the legitimate fear they will be harassed or retaliated against for their advocacy,” wrote Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel at the ACLU.

Conservatives groups also came out against the bill.

“When liberals talk about ‘transparency,’ that isn’t what they mean,” Cleta Mitchell, chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, said in a statement. “What they really want and what this bill provides is a target list of conservatives who have the temerity to contribute their after-tax dollars to support candidates and issues the left hates.”

The Center for Competitive Politics criticized the bill, saying that the lawmakers introduced the measure without any consideration of whether “it is overly burdensome and/or deters political speech protected by the First Amendment.”

“The bill would radically expand the reach of government regulation on speech critical of elected officials and force many, if not nearly all, advocacy groups to register and file burdensome reports with the federal government,” the organization said in a report.

Free-speech advocates have been the major obstacle for disclosure reform on grounds that anonymous political speech should not be infringed at any level. Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have constantly opposed any type of campaign finance reform.

McConnell met with House Republicans last December warning them not to sign on to any bipartisan initiative requiring super PACs to disclose information about their donors more frequently. Cruz said last year that current campaign finance laws should end to allow unlimited donations to campaigns.

“Whenever Congress acts in the area of political speech, there’s a touch stone for everything we do, should be the first amendment to the Constitution. And I think that the public should be particularly skeptical when you have elected politicians of either part enacting rules limiting the ability of public citizens to criticize the behavior of their elected officials,” Cruz said recently during a Senate hearing on campaign finance reform.

Rodrigo is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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All Comments   (5)
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I'll repeat what I've heard Bill Whittle say: "When can we expect to see this legislation be sunsetted?"
Yeah, I think this is a crappy bill. So, let's guarantee that it will have to be re-architected in the future: put an expiration date on it. That's a FAR BETTER guarantee to the people than "bipartisan" ever is.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Should voters in New York be allowed to contribute to elections in New Hampshire? Should voters in Concord, NH be allowed to contribute to elections in Manchester, NH?
If you cannot vote in an election, why should you be allowed to contribute to that election?
Whom do you want politicians to raise money from, their constituents or people that CANNOT vote for them?

Campaign Finance Reform should be about Insiders versus Outsiders not hard money versus soft money.

US Citizens
An Example for US Citizens Who Live, Vote and Pay Taxes in the Government District:
Three people contribute to a campaign. One contributes $10,000 worth of time, one contributes $10,000 worth of resources and one contributes $10,000 in cash.
Which has violated campaign finance laws?
The person that contributes $10,000 cash. The persons that contributed $10,000 worth of time and resources are making legal contributions. But all three people live under regulations, pay taxes, and earn income in the government district that the candidate represents.

If you are not going to limit the time and resources a voter may contribute to a candidate, why is it fair to limit the cash a voter can contribute?

Time, resources and money are all acceptable and equivalent contributions. There should be no limits on contributions by people who can vote in an election. They pay taxes and live under that government's regulations so they should be allowed to help select their representative any way they can, with time, money or resources.

Conversely, if a person can NOT vote in an election then they should not be allowed to contribute anything to a candidate, not time, money or resources.

Voting in an election is the key determiner of Insider versus Outsider. If it were not so, we could vote in all 50 states, for 50 governors, 100 senators, etc. Because we are limited to whom we can vote for, we should also be limited to whom we can contribute to. This limit applies to time, money and resources.

An Example for Unlimited Campaign Contributions by Voters in an Election District:
Let’s use New York City as an example. Two billionaires live in New York city and one billionaire we’ll call Michael, wants to be mayor of New York city. Michael contributes $10 million to his own campaign, which is perfectly legal under the current campaign finance laws. The other billionaire, we’ll call Donald, does not want to be mayor, but he also does not want Michael to be mayor. He would like to contribute $10 million to another candidate. This is not legal. Why? They both live, work, pay taxes and vote in New York city.

If you are having problems with allowing voters to give unlimited campaign contributions please ask yourself these questions:
If you had a million dollars investment in the stock market, would you pay a stock broker to manage that investment.
If you paid one million dollars in taxes, would you not contribute to a politician to manage your "investment" in government?
If you received one million dollars in government contracts or tax deductions or subsidies, would you not contribute to a politician to manage your "revenue" from government?
If you paid one million dollars to comply with government regulations would you not contribute to a politician to manage your "investment" with the government?

Remember that billionaires can only make unlimited contributions in one election district, the one they can vote in.

Non-voting US Residents
The Supreme Court has ruled that people that can not vote in the US, but pay taxes to the US can participate in a limited way in elections. This ruling applied to permanent residents who are not yet citizens. The Supreme Court did allow restrictions on the amount of money non-citizens could contribute to an election. They limited their contributions to only the amount of money the person earned in the US.

Two people make the same amount of money in a government district and pay the same taxes to that government, but only one of them can vote in that district. Should the contributions by the nonresident be limited to the same amount of contributions as the voters in that district? Should nonresidents be banned from making contributions of time and resources because placing a value on it and accounting for it is difficult to impossible?

The rest can be found at
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't know how Murkowski got suckered into this. Unfortunately, the Joe Miller thing caused her to pile in with some strange bedfellows and she doesn't have much reason to be very loyal to the caucus. She took a LOT of money from Alaska Native (ANCSA) Corporations and they aren't a natural Republican constituency. Worse, she took a lot of money from organized labor, something no Republican should do and it always comes at a price. I worked for her father, I know her and like her personally, but her appointment crippled the Murkowski Administration and colored everything we did in the first two years. Frank's passing over Sarah Palin to appoint Lisa caused Sarah to embark on a vendetta against all things Murkowski and against the Alaska Republican Party. That vendetta put the Alaska Senate in the hands of a Democrat-led coaltion, the first time in decades it hadn't been in Republican control, and could easily have put Lisa Murkowski's Senate seat in Democrat hands. I still don't understand why Alaska's Democrats didn't quickly draft some brandname Democrat to oppose Miller. Everyone in Republican politics here was holding their breath waiting for fmr. Gov. Knowles or fmr. Lt. Gov. Ulmer or one of several other Democrats with Statewide name recognition to throw their hat in the ring and replace the unknown Democrat nominee; still can't figure out why they didn't. If they had, the ANCSA Corp and Labor backing that were the keys to Lisa's write-in success would have gone to the Democrat. We really need to put up a solid Republican challenger to Lisa in the Primary and get a Republican Reset in Alaska after the Lisa appointment, Frank's self-immolation, all the Sarah drama, the Stevens loss and his death, and the still on-going battle for control of the Party between more traditional Alaska Republicans and the alliance of Palinbots and Paulbots. Once among the Reddest states, Alaska is decidedly Purple these days and trending Blue, and we really don't have a Republican Party to stop that trend.

All you have to do is read "The Blueprint" to see how the left intends to use disclosures. They'll set up whole shops of lawyers to engage in "Lawfare" against contributors to conservative/Republican candidates and causes. Whether meritorious or not, campaign finanace law complaints are time consuming, expensive, and embarassing. If you're a Republican, the complaint is front page above the fold and you're trashed as a lawbreaker on the mere allegation. When the complaint is dismissed, long after the election, the "news" is on page 24 in the smallest possible typeface. In that environment, people become VERY reluctant to contribute - and that's the whole idea.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It never ceases to amaze how people distort the Constitution. Just as in the case of the Second Amendment, so it is in the case of the First. What part of "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..." doesn't anyone understand? It is not that the people (which includes corporate bodies) have the right to free speech, it is that Congress cannot pass any laws abridging those rights, period, case closed!! Hence, any 'law' so passed by Congress is prima fascie unconstitutional.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
No matter how you slice it, this "bipartisan" bill is a bad bill, an infringment of free speech rights.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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