Campaign finance: broad agreement within narrow boundaries

A cluster of top Democrats gathered today to unveil a campaign-finance reform plan that’s long on disclosure and transparency — and, by necessity, short on actual spending limits. That’s because of the restrictions on campaign finance law imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United and Western Tradition Partnership v. Montana cases. In a post-Citizens United world, said Secretary of State Jim Condos, the only avenue for reform is “better, stronger, and more frequent disclosure.”  

“I wish that we could end the current system of essentially unlimited money,” added House Speaker Shap Smith, “but we have to understand that’s not going to happen. We are controlled by the precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court. But I do think transparency will make a huge difference.”

The plan is essentially identical to those proposed by VPIRG and by a group of Republican lawmakers — a fact not only acknowledged, but celebrated, by those in attendance today. “It’s hugely encouraging that both parties are coming together over [this] issue,” said Bob Stannard, head of Priorities PAC, the anti-SuperPAC SuperPAC. “They all appear to be on the same page, and I think that’s great.”

(Pictured, left to right: Secretary of State Condos, VDP Chair Perkinson, Senate President Campbell. Speaker Shap Smith hidden, Valerie Jarrett style, behind Campbell.)

There was one significant difference in the Democrats’ plan, and it was delivered with an unsubtle slam against one of GMD’s favorite bete noires — Bruce Lisman’s Campaign for Vermont. The Dems have vivid recollections of CFV’s thinly-veiled attack ads, and they really want to prevent a repeat. They want to impose new reporting requirements for organizations that “hide behind slick names” (Condos’ words) and engage in “public issue spending.” CFV was mentioned by name (repeatedly), but the requirement could also target groups like Vermonters for Health Care Freedom and Wake Up, Opt Out which engaged in issue advertising in 2012.  

The mood of tripartisan celebration (yes, they praised the Progs as well) was tempered by the rather curious fact that the lead speaker was Jake Perkinson, head of the Vermont Democratic Party. And the news release was printed on VDP letterhead. The assembled Dems didn’t really have a good explanation for that; they referred to the necessity of including political parties in the reform process, but didn’t address Perkinson’s central role in the event.  

The Dems’ reform proposals include:  

— In the last 45 days before an election, all PACs and Super PACs would have to disclose all donations and expenditures over $250 within 24 hours.

— If a single individual contributes 25% or more of a PAC’s or Super PAC’s total bankroll, that individual must be identified by name in every advertisement. (Call that the Lenore Broughton Clause, although it could also apply to Lisman; see next point.)

— Full disclosure of political spending by “nonpolitical” groups. The Dems specifically and repeatedly cited Lisman’s CFV as their example.

— Penalties for candidates and organizations that fail to meet filing deadlines.

— Mandatory electronic campaign filing, and a searchable online database for all campaign finance information. This is the only item that would require funding — perhaps as much as $1 million for new technology in the Secretary of State’s office.

The only available cost estimate was crafted a few years ago by Condos’ predecessor, Deb Markowitz; it pegged the technology cost at between $600,000 and $1M. The cost may be lower than that, if Vermont can make use of software already used by other states. And even in a tight budget year, legislative leaders voiced a commitment to finding the money: “These are things we really have to do,” said John Campbell, Senate President Pro Tem. “Everyone across the board believes that we need more transparency in campaign finance.”  

Reform advocate Bob Stannard was generally pleased, but he’d like to see one more addition to the plan: some basic biographical information.

I don’t think it’s enough that we just name the donors. We have to get to the motives for the donation — and you can set a limit on that, maybe anybody over $2,000. When you start giving major money, then it’s important to find out what’s that person’s background? What’s the motivation behind the money? Is the person the head of a large company or an employee?  I think that would make it more transparent and take it to a different and better level.

Although there’s substantial agreement across the political spectrum, there are some issues to be resolved — and some of them could lead to extensive debate. The biggest is how to define “public issue spending” — the Dems all agreed that Lisman’s CFV was obviously political in 2012, but beyond that, there’s a substantial gray zone. And unresolved questions about how far Vermont can go.  “I think that’s to be determined,” said Condos. “That’s some of the debate the Legislature needs to have. They need to bring in the Attorney General to talk about the constitutional law. We’ll have to look at that, and there may be nothing we can do.”

Other unresolved points: what kinds of penalties to impose for late filing (“We need to make it hurt,” said Condos), and the exact frequency of filing deadlines. Example: under current law, the first deadline during a campaign year is July 15, which I’ve argued is too late. “I would personally agree with you,” said Perkinson, “and that’s an issue that’s up for debate. There is broad agreement that there should be more frequent filings. As to the exact dates, that will have to be discussed.”  

The last word goes to State Sen. Ginny Lyons, who put the entire issue into context:

This will not end until the federal government has a dialogue about what money means in our democracy. This is the beginning of a conversation in this state, but ultimately, Congress is going to have to consider the Citizens United decision and all those other decisions that have brought us to this point.


One thought on “Campaign finance: broad agreement within narrow boundaries

  1. but I wouldn’t hold my breath for federal election reform anytime soon.

    Just a casual glance at the news of the day reveals how deeply the tentacles of corporate buying power invade even the loftiest chambers of debate within Congress.

    Our own good Senator is the best of a compromised lot on the Judiciary Committee considering gun regulations, having accepted $7,000. in campaign contributions from the NRA.

    That is an extremely paltry sum when compared with the hundred of thousands of dollars other members of the Senate Judiciary committee have accepted from the NRA, but it demonstrates how difficult it is to find a truly unencumbered vote on the Hill.

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