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Rob Horowitz: Potential New Life for Campaign Finance Reform

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a new Wild West of election fundraising has been launched with hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it undisclosed, flooding into new, so-called super PACs and non-profit organizations.

For years, those fighting for campaign finance reform have fought to limit the outsized influence corporations and extremely wealthy individuals can have on national elections and government due to their size and access to funding. In 2002, advocates cheered as the landmark Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Russ Feingold(D-WI) was adopted.

Unfortunately, in a five-to-four decision in Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the components of BCRA and other national campaign finance laws preventing corporations and labor unions from spending money directly from their treasuries on “independent expenditure” campaigns for or against a particular candidate. It also barred contribution limits for this type of spending.

With the gaping hole opened by Citizens United, campaign finance reform appeared dead and buried. But there are now glimpses of new life.

Occupy Wall Street has brought new attention to the disproportionate influence of the very rich, the top 1% earning $700,000 or more annually. The Tea Party and some of their Presidential and Congressional allies have focused on the issue of Crony Capitalism—where special government favors are done for politically well-connected companies at the expense of everyone else. The failed solar energy company, Solyndra, which went bankrupt after receiving $500 million in government loans and whose executives were Obama contributors, has become a rallying point for Conservatives.

While the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are unlikely to agree on solutions to the broad question of crony capitalism or the top 1% or a sweeping campaign finance reform agenda, there is the potential for agreement on the idea that contributions to independent expenditure efforts should all be disclosed – and disclosed in REAL TIME -- so voters can factor in the sources of this campaign cash when they make decisions about whom to support.

In Citizens United, the Court explicitly said that disclosure is constitutional, and in fact, desirable. The next step is for just a few entrepreneurial national politicians of both parties to build on this new fertile soil and join together to propose disclosure of all these new contributions. Any bipartisan initiative of this kind in today’s polarized world will win extensive media coverage for its initiators. And success on disclosure will bring new energy to a stalled and frustrated campaign finance reform movement.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

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