Reform or Remove? Election Spending Caps Are Under Review

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Before candidates debate in 2014 and voters go to the polls, policymakers and the public have the chance to ponder the future of the contentious issue that is campaign finance reform. Considerations stemming from corporate and organized donors are underway in California and Washington, D.C.; individual donor issues have been taken up by the Supreme Court. On October 8, the justices heard arguments for McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

In California, Kamela Harris, the state’s attorney general, recently said, “California’s campaign finance laws are in desperate need of reform.” Her remarks came in a statement announcing a $1 million civil settlement in a case where two Arizona-based political organizations violated the California Political Reform Act.

The terms of the settlement require the Center to Protect Patient Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership to pay $500,000 apiece for failing to properly disclose donor information during the November 2012 election in California. The purpose of the act, according to the suit, is to “fully and truthfully” disclose contributions made during elections to the public. Anyone receiving or giving at least $1,000 in contributions must disclose the activity.

The settlement brought to light the murkier aspects of campaign finance in California and provides a platform for reform. “California law currently contains a loophole for certain groups to evade transparency by maintaining the anonymity of their donors,” Harris said in her statement. “I fully endorse swift legislative action to change the law.”

D.C. politicians also want to eliminate loopholes. A bill could be considered by the D.C. council as early as Tuesday that would eradicate the “LLC loophole” in campaign finance. The Washington Post reported on the council meeting during which various measures of campaign finance reform were on the table.

Stopping the LLC loophole measure was largely supported by the council. Currently, people who own several companies are circumventing spending caps by donating through those companies. The proposal makes it so they can no longer donate in such a manner. It would also force lobbyists to disclose when checks from personal and profession networks have been collected for a candidate. This is also known as “donation-bundling.”

But will the transparency measures ultimately end up as just good intentions, forced into the category by factors beyond state and local policymakers’ control? The Supreme Court, as mentioned before, has taken up and heard a case regarding caps on the amount of money an individual can donate in elections.

The questions posed to the court in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission surround the constitutionality of imposing biennial limits on individuals. According to documents filed with the court, biennial limits are currently set at $46,200 to candidate committees and $70,800 to all other committees, of which no more than $46,200 may go to non-national-party committees.

There was little consensus among the Supreme Court justices during oral arguments, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did signal her inclinations during the October 8 hearing.

“It has been argued that these limits promote expression, promote democratic participation, because what they require the candidate to do is, instead of concentrating fundraising on the super-affluent, the candidate would then have to try to raise money more broadly in the electorate. So that by having these limits you are promoting democratic participation,” she said.

President Barack Obama addressed the case during an October 8 news conference, saying it “would go even further than Citizens United. I mean, essentially, it would say anything goes; there are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns.”

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