Proposed Campaign Finance Reform Bills Would Counter Flood of Unlimited Money in U.S. Elections

Posted Feb. 26, 2014

MP3 Interview with Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


More than eight months before this year's mid-term congressional elections, big money is already pouring in to many races. The multi-billionaire Koch brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, for example, has already spent more than $8 million on negative advertisements against Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. who is running for a second term. The ads focus on her support for the Affordable Care Act, the program’s problem-plagued launch and misstatements made by President Obama that everyone would be allowed to keep their current insurance policies, regardless of an insurance company’s power to withdraw coverage plans. Initial public opposition to ObamaCare along with confusion about the program’s provisions have provided powerful ammunition for conservatives trying to unseat Democrats. However, huge sums are being spent by both Republican and Democratic party donors.

Among the legislative measures now being proposed in Congress to respond to the flood of unlimited and unaccountable campaign spending ushered in by the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, are the “Fair Elections Now Act,” sponsored by Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and the “Government By The People Act,” sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Nick Nyhart, president of the Washington, D.C.-based group Public Campaign, which supports public funding for elections. With 17 years as an advocate of campaign finance reform, he says there's an upside to all the bad news about ever greater amounts of big money being injected into U.S. politics. Here Nyhart discusses the latest big money infusions – and some current legislative efforts to counteract their impact.

NICK NYHART: Things getting worse has meant more and more people want to solve the problems, so it's very exciting. We have more and more people saying, What can we do? I want to help. On the other hand, the boulder we're pushing up the hill has just gotten to be a bigger boulder on a steeper hill. But it's only going to get worse until we change the Court, or change the Constitution, and, in addition to that, set up a small donor-based public financing system, like the Fair Elections Now Act that Sen. Durbin is sponsoring, or the new Government by the People Act, that Rep. John Sarbanes is sponsoring, and just rolled out with 130 co-sponsors, which is a huge number, well more than half the votes we need on the first day the bill was put out there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I actually spoke to Congressman Sarbanes the day he introduced his bill. But there's been more bad news since then with more big money flowing into the process. Can you talk about that?

NICK NYHART: The most recent interesting news – and something that exemplifies what's wrong with the system – two American billionaires, one from California, Tom Steyer, who's a strong advocate for fighting back on climate change, and supporting policies that would counteract climate change, vowed to put huge amounts of money – $50 million of his own money and hopefully raising an equal amount from other people – to take on politicians who stand in the way of fighting climate change. And just around the same time, a conservative Republican, Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire, announced that he, too, was going to jump into elections, and put millions and millions of dollars into supporting strongly pro-business candidates and opposing people he thinks are anti-business. So we've seen tens of millions of dollars come into the race not from tens of thousands of people, but from two people, pledging to run huge political operations, and this is in addition to the Koch Brothers and the liberal donors that have banded together. So we're seeing a continuation of what the Roberts Court has allowed through Citizens United and a series of other decisions of opening up the political process so that big money will have more and more of an impact. And it's going to turn politics into a parlor game for billionaires if it keeps going in this direction. And there's nothing that's going to stop it from going in this direction, so when a billionaire says he's spending $50 million, it's a lot of money to you and me, but for these billionaires it's just the beginning of what they could put into politics if they were totally committed to it.

So this is really bad news for ordinary Americans, because if you don't give to politicians, or even if you give $25 or $50 or $100, your voice doesn't make that much difference in the money that politicians need even more of than they did before. When someone adds tens of millions of dollars into the elections that are coming up this year, it means that the candidates who want to defend themselves from the Super-PAC attack ads, need to raise more and more money, so your $100 or $25 or $5 doesn't mean too much when a candidate is trying to raise millions more for their House or Senate race. They need to go right to the lobbying interests that might write them a $2,500 check, or a $1,000 check, or bundle large numbers of checks like that. So we're seeing everyday people being squeezed out of politics as a result of billionaires really beginning to dominate the political warfare we have every two years.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Nick Nyhart, bills have been introduced in every Congress since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 that declared corporations and unions are people and money is a form of free speech that can't be restricted, and those bills never went anywhere. So far the co-sponsors of both of this year's bills we've been talking about are virtually all Democrats, so I'm not sure how much chance they have of passing in Congress, but if they should, what impact would they have on money in politics?

NICK NYHART: They begin the fightback against the Roberts Court and its string of bad decisions. They do that by matching small donations and allowing candidates to run dependent on the people back home. So if someone goes and gets lots of $25 contributions at a backyard barbecue, that money is matched 6 to 1 for candidates who agree not to accept large contributions. So it empowers the voices of everyday people, and because of the 6 to 1 match, it then says to the candidate, you know what, we'll take your small donations and we'll make them add up to enough money that you can counteract the SuperPACs that are coming down against you. So it gives a way for candidates to run for office being true to their constituents by being backed by lots of small donations plus matching public funds.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Did Citizens United allow these SuperPACs to be created?

NICK NYHART: No, there was a lower court decision following rulings by the Roberts Court that said, "Right now we allow individuals to spend as much money as they want attacking somebody, but we don't allow a couple individuals to work together on that." And they found that, this Supreme Court, based on its rulings, would rule against that. So it's actually a lower circuit court that now permits individuals with large amounts of money to spend, to work together with each other as long as they don't work with the candidate directly.

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