Leveling the Campaign Finance Playing Field

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


A campaign finance reform bill meant to curb the excesses of the Citizens United decision is scheduled for a vote in the House today. The Supreme Court ruling lifted spending restrictions for unions and corporations, allowing them to spend freely on campaign ads that explicitly advocated for or against candidates. The DISCLOSE Act is intended to help level the playing field by requiring all groups to reveal the donors behind such ads, preventing corporations from hiding behind third parties—as they’ve often done in the past—to avoid having to reveal their identities.

The argument is that such measures could have a cooling effect on unfettered corporate spending on elections, as companies might be reluctant to risk tainting their brands by supporting or opposing a candidate. I suspect that this might be true: in the months since the Citizens United decision, there have been very few reports of corporations taking advantage of the ruling by directly funding campaign ads themselves.

But the bill set off a firestorm last week after the National Rifle Association scored a big carveout for itself that would exempt it from the legislation’s disclosure rules—most importantly, it wouldn’t have to reveal its closely held list of donors. This bout of political horsetrading caused both conservative and liberal advocates to cry foul, and the measure’s chances of passage—in either the House or the Senate—are now uncertain. 

David Broder suggests an alternative reform proposal today (found via Ezra’s Wonkbook) that would forgo disclosure requirements in favor of empowering small donors, citing an idea promoted by Michael Malbin, head of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute:

Malbin’s model is the New York City system, with a 6-to-1 match for the first $175 of any contribution, making it worth $1,225 to the candidate.

With that kind of payoff, he says, candidates would have every reason to go after small contributors—and pay less attention to the fat cats. And with a flood of such “clean” money, the dollars that corporations and unions decide to spend in the game would become relatively less important.

It’s an interesting idea—and could certainly be an incentive for candidates to seek out small donors, even if they don’t have that same Obama magic. But while it does make small donors more competitive, it wouldn’t eliminate the need for the disclosure requirements in the current bill. And New York City itself is a good example of why.

NYC’s campaign finance rules certainly haven’t deterred Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the eighth richest person in the US, from forgoing public financing so he could dip into his billions without restriction to back his campaigns. But at least the public is quite aware that his own corporate fortune has backed his bid—and Bloomberg’s rightfully had to weather the criticism that comes along with it. Similarly, if corporations want to underwrite federal campaign expenditures, they should at least be required to do so in public view. As it stands, we have no way of knowing whether Citizens United has yet unleashed a wave of corporate election spending, as deep-pocketed groups are still allowed to hide behind third parties who can do their bidding.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.