Politico's Arena: Obama vindicated on Libya approach? And campaign finance system, RIP?


There is significant irony that deregulators, many at secretly funded entities, are battling to hide the sources of campaign spending at the very time that the tea party and other citizen activists are complaining that Congress is spending too much money and paying insufficient attention to their demands for lower levels of government spending. If the deregulators had their way, citizens would not know the sources of the millions of dollars being spent on advertising in House and Senate races by groups with innocuous names like “Americans for America," and there would be no limits on what special interests could give directly to candidates. 

All of this would take us back to the era of the “Robber Barons” and the Wall Street Trusts, when people referred to “the Senator from Standard Oil” and Congress was thought to be bought and paid for by corporations. Famously, JP Morgan is supposed to have said of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose election he supported, “We paid for the SOB — the problem is that he didn’t stay bought.”

But over the intervening 100 years, we have learned lessons at both the federal and state level about corruption and the appearance of corruption, including the importance of transparency in political spending, so that citizens can see where the money is coming from. Or, as Justice Anthony Kennedy said for eight justices in Citizens United in upholding broad public disclosure rules, “with the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interests in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.” 

The Supreme Court in Citizens United allowed unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions. However, it explicitly ratified requirements to disclose such spending and showed no sign of objecting to limits on the size of contributions directly to candidates and political party committees. These two pillars of campaign finance regulation remain vital to avoiding corruption, informing the public of the sources of money being used to elect and influence legislators, and proving the public with sufficient information to consider alternatives to our current sources of campaign finance.

Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is president of the Campaign Legal Center, a senior advisor to Issue One, and head of the political law practice at Caplin & Drysdale. This piece originally ran in Politico's Arena on March 18, 2011. To read it there, click here.