What’s in Store in Congress on Campaign Finance Reform? by Lauren M. Donoghue


As mentioned in the previous article, having just gone through the most expensive election in U.S. history, $6 billion spent, what action can we expect Congress to take on this issue in the coming session? According to an Associated Press poll released in 2012, 83 percent of Americans believe that there should be at least some limits on the political expenditures corporations and unions can make. However, there is little consensus on what should be done, and can be done constitutionally, to reign in the amount of money spent on elections in this country.

A week after the November election, Represent.Us, an organization which includes members of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the head of the DC Tea Party and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, began gathering signatures on a petition calling for an overhaul of the campaign finance system. The measure, titled the American Anti-Corruption Act, was drafted by former Federal Election Commission (FEC) Chairman Trevor Potter and would require public disclosure of all campaign contributions and limit contributions across the board. The group plans to ask lawmakers to sponsor the bill once the petition reaches one million signatures, which they hope to accomplish by late 2013.

With the anniversary of Citizens United coming up later this month, a movement to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision being driven by Common Cause, one of the more high-profile campaign finance reform groups, has been receiving national attention recently. During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama expressed support for a constitutional amendment, but that route to altering the campaign finance landscape seems unlikely. Amending the constitution is no easy feat; it requires a two-thirds approval from Congress and then three-fourths of the states. However, as President Obama noted, "even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change."

In the 112th Congress, there were several legislative efforts put forth to reform the campaign finance system. A bill introduced by Representative David Price (D-NC) would have provided a 5-to-1 matching fund for the first $250 of contributions by individuals to House, Senate and presidential candidates. Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) introduced the Grassroots Democracy Act, a public financing measure that would have given every citizen a $50 refundable tax credit to donate to candidates, and would match every $1 of private donations with $5 if that campaign rejects PAC money, and with $10 if the campaign only accepts small donations. For the past several sessions of Congress, Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has introduced legislation, the DISCLOSE Act, that would require a disclosure report to be filed with the FEC within 24 hours of any spending and the filing of a new report every time another $10,000 or more is spent. The DISCLOSE Act passed the House in 2010, but then failed in the Senate. Most of the other legislative efforts got even less traction.

In the 113th Congress, Representative Van Hollen wasted no time in re-introducing his DISCLOSE bill, doing so on the first day of the new session. While the transparency goals of the DISCLOSE Act have received bipartisan support from a few Republicans in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) denounced it as an assault on free speech, and its fate remains uncertain. With the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision coming up on January 21, many of the advocacy groups mentioned above are planning events to mark the occasion and bring attention to the cause of campaign finance reform, but it remains to be seen if Congress will take action on this issue, especially amid the looming debt ceiling, sequester and array of other issues that require Members' attention.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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