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Public Citizen Urges FEC to Curb Out-of-Control Election Spending, Take Some of Justice Roberts’ Advice

Feb. 11, 2015

Public Citizen Urges FEC to Curb Out-of-Control Election Spending, Take Some of Justice Roberts’ Advice

Experts Call for Disclosure of Donors, Elimination of Coordination Between Super PACs and Candidates, Regulation of Joint Fundraising Committees

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In testimony (PDF) today at a hearing on aggregate campaign limits, two Public Citizen experts are urging the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to rein in out-of-control election spending.

Some of the remedies Public Citizen recommends came from U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who supported the court decisions that have unraveled decades of campaign finance law even as he called on policymakers to shore up the system.

In April 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission struck down limits on the aggregate amounts people can donate to candidates, political parties and political committees. After receiving more than 32,000 public comments since December about the issue of money in politics, the FEC held a public hearing today to receive feedback from the public on the implications of this decision.

Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, and Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch government affairs lobbyist, urge the agency to take three regulatory actions to address the new campaign finance environment in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

“Misguided court decisions have fundamentally rewritten the nation’s campaign finance laws, posing several new and grave dangers for our democratic system of governance,” said Gilbert. “The FEC needs to take appropriate remedial action to stop the further corruption of our democracy.”

First, the FEC must re-establish the comprehensive campaign finance disclosure system that has eroded in the past few years due to misguided FEC rulemaking, Gilbert said. There is no question about the constitutionality of mandating transparency of money in politics; the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld campaign finance disclosure laws, she said.

Second, the FEC should redefine “coordination” between candidates and outside groups. Super PACs are not supposed to coordinate their activities with a candidate or party committee. But under FEC rules, it is legal for super PACs and candidates to discuss campaign strategy until a few months before an election and even share vendors. Under the current faulty rules, super PACs can be run by friends, family and former staffers of the candidates.

“The rules leave a whole lot of room for coordination,” Holman said.

In several reports, Public Citizen has documented that these super PACs tend not to be independent at all; rather they tend to be “super-connected” to a specific candidate.

The FEC should redefine coordination to including sharing vendors and hiring former staffers, among other measures, Holman said.

Single-candidate and party-connected super PACs accounted for 65 percent of the money spent by these groups in the 2012 presidential election and 45 percent of the money spent in the 2014 congressional elections. As those numbers continue to increase, Public Citizen encourages the FEC to do what Roberts has advised: strengthen the coordination and earmarking rules to capture the obvious circumvention to the individual contribution limit that we see at play with today’s super PACs.

Third, as recommended by Roberts, the FEC should place reasonable limits on joint fundraising committees to prevent these entities from becoming vehicles for circumvention of the base limits, Holman said.

Following the McCutcheon decision, joint fundraising committees are expected to explode in number and significance for financing all federal campaigns.

“Without aggregate contribution limits, the sky’s the limit for these entities,” Holman said. “A wealthy individual who seeks to curry favor with the Speaker of the House or Senate Majority leader now has a legal avenue to hand over a single multimillion-dollar check to that office holder by using joint fundraising committees.”

Further, transfers between candidates and parties will make evasion of even the base limits very likely. While joint fundraising committees are required under FEC regulations to create a distribution formula for divvying up their largess among participating candidates and party committees, the recipient candidate and party committees aren’t bound to do so. Therefore it is likely that candidates in noncompetitive elections may transfer the funds they receive to the national party committee – indirectly but legally sidestepping the base limits for that donor.

Read the testimony (PDF).