Vast and Often Anonymous Campaign Expenditures Threaten Our Political System
I remember the first time I heard the ad on the radio. I was driving down the 134 Freeway, three weeks before Election Day in 2000, and in a very competitive race for Congress against the incumbent. An angry woman’s voice came on the radio and after talking about a threatened change to Medicare, told listeners that they should “call Adam Schiff and tell him to stop scaring seniors.” I almost drove off the road.
The ad would be played with such endless frequency that I would push the button on my radio to escape it, only to find the same ad was playing on another station.
The message said it was paid for by some phony baloney organization – like citizens for a better tomorrow – but a quick look at FEC records showed the real sponsor was the pharmaceutical industry, which opposed my campaign since I favored the re-importation of prescription drugs as a means of ending American subsidization of lower cost meds around the world.
This was part of the first wave of “soft money” expenditures, a method of evading campaign spending limits by pretending ads played weeks before an election were not campaign related, but only for educational purposes. When the dust settled, my campaign would be the most expensive in U.S. history and help propel new campaign finance reform.
On my very first day in Congress, the first bill I cosponsored was the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, which attempted to ban soft money expenditure and allowed for public financing of campaigns. The bill passed – and for a brief window – the campaign finance system became more transparent and limited. The remedy would be short-lived.
My 2000 campaign may have been expensive, but compared to the current environment it’s looking downright quaint. Nine years after the success of McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court overturned critical parts of that and other campaign finance laws in its Citizens United decision and released a new torrent of political spending.
Now it is largely impossible to regulate the billions in campaign spending that has been unleashed over the last two decades. Worst of all, now much of that spending is secret and anonymous. In 2000, I could at least alert people to the industry that was behind the attacks against me; now that may be impossible for many candidates.
After Citizens United, the Supreme Court dealt another blow to campaign finance reform efforts and struck down limits on overall federal campaign expenditures in its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision.
With these two rulings, the Court has allowed wealthy individuals and groups to spend however much they want with essentially no limits, as long as they do not coordinate with campaigns. Yet the reality is that the FEC has dismissed 29 cases in which Super PACs were suspected of illegally coordinating with candidates without even investigating the claims. Sadly, it seems that outside groups can spend whatever they wish to influence elections with anonymity and impunity.
The 2014 midterm elections saw almost $4 billion in total campaign spending, with Super PAC spending close to $700 million alone. Of that money, over $100 million is so-called “dark money,” untraceable to individual donors or corporations but which is often laundered through Super PACs.
Two individuals have come to personify the reshaping of our campaign finance landscape – Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers spent $290 million last year through their network of donors and activists, and just last week announced that they plan to spend $899 million in 2016 influencing the presidential and congressional campaigns.
In comparison to the most recent Presidential election, in which President Obama and Mitt Romney both spent slightly over $1 billion, it’s not an overstatement to say that the Koch brothers and other enormously wealthy individuals could tip the scales in favor of their preferred candidate.
In Congress, the House and Senate majority has prevented efforts to increase transparency and disclosure of campaign spending – specifically by blocking the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would at the very least require some disclosure and transparency from those who would spend millions to influence our elections.
I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that the only way to fix our broken campaign finance system is to overturn the flawed Citizens United decision. That’s why I’m going to reintroduce a constitutional amendment to do just that next month. My amendment would allow Congress to set reasonable limits on campaign spending and it would allow states to set up public financing systems if they chose to do so.
I have always been loath to amend the constitution, but when the first order of business for a presidential candidate is courting billionaires who will spend unlimited money on their behalf, there is simply no other option. We must overturn Citizens United and protect free and fair elections.