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Q&A on SCOTUS Campaign Finance Ruling

April 08, 2014 By Rachel Weeks, Communications Specialist

Money talks. We’ve always known this. Everyone has the right to speak their minds about political decisions but the more money you have, the further your opinion carries. Last week, the US Supreme Court removed one more barrier to wealth’s command of political opinion amplification, striking down limits on individual giving restrictions to campaigns and political organizations in federal elections.

What does this mean for democracy?

How will this change our elections?

What are the implications for parties, candidates, and citizens?

Today between 8 and 9:30, Marcia Avner will join us for a discussion on the changing democratic landscape. She’s a faculty member at UMD’s Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program and works at the state and federal level to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our democratic system.

 

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66 Comments:

  • Jim says:

    April 8, 2014 at 7:50 am

    The Supreme Court can only rule on legislation.  Time for Congress to get to work.

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Do we see some leadership from the MN delegation on this?

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 7:58 am

    On Wednesday, April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount that any individual can contribute to federal elections in a two year election cycle. This 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v FEC echoes the 2010 decision in Citizens United that struck down limits on independent campaign spending by unions and corporations.
    The decision limits how much government can restrict the 1st Amendment rights in the form of campaign contributions.

    • WY SPANO says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:05 am

      David Brooks said recently that this ruling actually helps political parties which have lost a lot of power to super PAC’s and super rich individuals.  Think there might be truth to that?

      • Marcia Avner says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:15 am

        Lots of debate about the impact on parties…The NYTimes editorial on Thursday suggests that parties are now going to be more responsive to big donors, held captive to some extent, setting policies and rules that favor their new mega-donors.

        What do people think about the impact on parties? More relevant? More controlled by monied interests?

        • geothermaljones says:

          April 8, 2014 at 8:23 am

          I heard Mr Brooks make this claim as well. I really don’t think it holds water. If you take either party & find 3 limitless donors, with a far right candidate, a middle road, and a progressive… 3 individuals throw the max limit to umpteen candidates in their realm of beliefs… all said and done you’ve got 3 candidates going after each other within the race, but the Super Pac of the day, with it’s single issue pot of cash can still raise their candidates position over the other two. I don’t see the parties being able to overcome the ‘secret’ donors.

  • John Van Hecke says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:00 am

    The McCutcheon decision deals, in part, with aggregate contribution limits. Does Minnesota cap aggregate state campaign contributions? If we don’t, should we? What’s the problem with virtually limitless contributions from a single donor to multiple campaigns?

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:09 am

      The decision removes the cap on the aggregate contributions that a donor may make. The previous cap of $2,600 per candidate in a federal election still holds, but a donor can give to an unlimited number of candidaters. (Previous limit - $48,600. ) For national parties, political committees, etc the limits of $32,400 to each party, $10,000 to a party’s state, district, and local committees, and $5,000 to any political committee still hold but, again, no limit now on the amount contributed to parties and other political groups.

      Gail Collins, in one of her more sardonic columns, interprets the decision: “Their bottom line was that the Founding Fathers intended American to be a country in which every citizen has the inalienable right to donate, say, $3.5 million every two years. How do you feel about that, people?

      SO…How do you feel about that, people>

      • Steve Fletcher says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:14 am

        It strikes me that with local limits continuing to apply, lifting the aggregate will prompt wealthy donors to spread their money around in more states.  The impact in Minnesota will be even more money coming in from out of state, giving wealthy non-Minnesotans an even stronger voice in Minnesota elections than they already have.

        • Marcia Avner says:

          April 8, 2014 at 8:18 am

          Interesting perspective. We know that some donors collaborate about what they will give and where…
          What do you think the implications are in specific ways for the 2014 election and beyond? Is this the “floodgate” that Justice Breyer predicted?

      • John Van Hecke says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:14 am

        I am only $3.5 million shy of that figure! As is everyone I know. Maybe that’s why we’re the 99 percent with one percent of the political influence.

    • WY SPANO says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:13 am

      With the Supreme Court equating money and speech, fixing the system in a sensible way seems impossible.  So allowing parties and campaigns the ability to get more money from more individuals looks like it might actually help the system a little bit.  The rich contributor might have an agenda, but he faces having to deal with other rich contributors who have slightly different agendas.  In a system so oligarchical in its structure that could be a sort of improvement.

      • Marcia Avner says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:55 am

        But then we still have only the 1% (since some of us are not in the $3.6 million league) making the decisions…and do we think that balance, the mega-rich on the left and right, still a democracy? representative?

      • Marcia Avner says:

        April 8, 2014 at 9:02 am

        How will we recruit the candidates who will serve us well, consider the needs of all constituents, think long term, address systems problems, and TAKE RISKS under this scenario?

      • Ronald Leurquin says:

        April 8, 2014 at 10:53 am

        What I still fail to understand is how anyone can legitimately consider money speach.  Its property.

        What I do understand is the saying money talks becasue those with money get heard and those wtihout dont.  But thats a saying, and not any kind of reality unless youve been in colorado lately and smpling the new green products.

        My money has never spoken to me or anyone else, it has no vocal chords.

        Money needs to be treated as property, and preferabley kept as far away from politics as can be.

  • Dane Smith says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Great piece here by Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the difference between an oligarchy and a democracy, and how unlimited big money in politics is moving us toward the former and away from the latter.

    http://www.opednews.com/articles/Democracy-vs-Oligarchy-by-Senator-Bernie-San-Billionaires_Democracy_Democracy_Democracy-140401-741.html

    • Steve Fletcher says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:09 am

      Thanks for posting that, Dane!  At the end of the article, Senator Sanders calls for public funding of campaigns as the solution.  What do people think about public funding as an alternative to the current donor-driven campaign environment?

      • Marcia Avner says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:22 am

        Public Finance…what do we in MN think?

        • Wy Spano says:

          April 8, 2014 at 9:17 am

          We actually had almost public financing in Minnesota legislative elections from the 1970’s to the mid-1990’s.  Maybe it’s possible to put public money in races and reduce the need for outside contributions.  Feels like “the enemy” here is agendas from outside the district which dominate local races.

          • Marcia Avner says:

            April 8, 2014 at 9:27 am

            Perhaps the reinstatement of the rebate will inspire people to think about the issues…

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Good Morning,
    This is Marcia Avner, faculty at the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership at UMD, formerly Public Policy Director at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, and involved with national foundations and nonprofits concerned about our democratic system. My focus is on policies that ensure that democracy works for everyone and each voice can be heard in the process of making decisions that impact people’s lives. The recent decisions in Citizens United and now MCCutcheon give us fuel for some robust discussion. They also call on us to be strategic about “What next?”

  • geothermaljones says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:05 am

    How about public financing across the board? Bill Bradley used to have a group ‘Just $6.00’ based on the idea that $6.00 per person nationwide would cover every election Dog Catcher to President.
    Lately Wolf-Pac.com has been calling for the states to call for an article V convention to amend the constitution, Minnesota was the closest to getting it passed last year via a John Marty bill.

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:21 am

      The League of Women Voters has been tracking the state and local resolutions that call for a Constitutional Amendment. MN did come close to passing SF 17 in 2013. Duluth, Mpls, and ST Paul have passed resolutions. But how realistic is this? 14 resolutoins have been introduced in Congress, but the vote required: 2/3 of House and Senate; 3/4ths of the states. Can it happen?

      • geothermaljones says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:37 am

        I prefer a congressional approach to campaign finance reform but while the big donor money flows & the lobbyists hover round, it’s never going to happen from within. The Article V approach seems to me to be very realistic approach, although a ways off. For every “Koch Brothers” shouter there’s an equal & opposite ‘Big Union’ retort.
        When Big money is touted as an issue by both Tea Partiers and Occupy Wallstreeters, I think it can garner a broad consensus. I feel this is far closer to a 99% vs 1% issue than a 53% vs 47%.

        • Marcia Avner says:

          April 8, 2014 at 8:59 am

          There is great strength in the argument, I think.  It requires some fine journalism to make this work…thoughts?

          • geothermaljones says:

            April 8, 2014 at 9:14 am

            That’s the problem with the Wolf-Pac.com site… it leads you to a Young Turks network that just drops flat with the reporting. Lots of snark, and a feel of TMZ. Lots of info, but the “fine” journalism is lacking. As we used to say of a popular paper in the 80’s “USA Today, Tommorow the World”

            • Marcia Avner says:

              April 8, 2014 at 9:29 am

              Where do we find the strong work, traditional and social media, to move the idea of the need for reforms to the plumbings of democracy? We have fertile territory in MN…

    • Dale says:

      April 8, 2014 at 9:45 am

      The Article V convention approach scares me.  Once the convention is in session, the entire constitution is on the table.  The report coming out of the convention may include lots of other agenda items (like bans on all abortions).  Remember from our history…The constitutional convention in 1787 was originally intended to tweak the Articles of Confederations (the original US constitution) but the convention decided to throw the entire document out and start over.  The delegates to that convention kept it very clean, which of course lead to a list of 14 proposed amendments almost immediately after it was ratified.  With today’s political climate, I have no hope that a modern convention will be so benign.

      • geothermaljones says:

        April 8, 2014 at 10:06 am

        I agree, there is a gamble, but I think the mere idea that a convention might be feasible, as the states start moving that way, will have congress taking notice and start dealing on the issue at hand. An actual convention would not be needed to get reform moving. How many of these politicians want to come out on the record in support of big money over grass roots.

  • JIM WEYGAND says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:17 am

    We have created a political system where the candidate who spends the most will win. This gives a tremendous advantage to incumbents especially those willing to sell out to the lobbyists or wealthy supporters. To change this system we either have to amend our constitution to allow campaign reform, or do a better job as voters to learn about candidates from sources other than political ads.

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:24 am

      One solution that has been suggested is a return to “equal time,” a system in which media are required to give each candidate in a race equal time. Can this work in the age of social media?

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 9:03 am

      Is redistricting reform important in the context of this idea?

      • geothermaljones says:

        April 8, 2014 at 9:28 am

        Redistricting is vital.
        Can we leave it to ALEC inspired state legislatures, and quite probable, courts?
        If we go to computer revision, will Diebold be involved?

  • Laura Waterman Wittstock says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:22 am

    The apparent positioning of liberals in defense mode against the SCOTUS ruling seems to be made for failing. What else can be done either in legislative measures or counter court actions to level the playing field?

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:28 am

      Laura, Some options that have been suggested:
      1. The “equal time” rule
      2. State level public finance systems that increase the clout of small donors
      3. Increased emphasis in disclosure laws
      4. Reenergized work to ensure voters’ rights and campaigns to encourage voter education and turn out

      Other ideas??

      • WY SPANO says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:42 am

        Despite my previous despairing comment about the hopelessness of the campaign financing situation without changing judges or the constitution, Marcia’s list of things to do is a good one.  One of the developments which is helping a lot is the move toward “field” in political campaigns.  Obama spent more on field than on advertising.  Betsy Hodges campaign was all field, no advertising.  Person to person contact seems to change the election dynamic and can negate, to some extent, the ad spending.  Supporting this move to direct campaigning is another way to help.

        • Steve Fletcher says:

          April 8, 2014 at 9:16 am

          Though remember that field also costs money, so doesn’t necessarily take big money out of campaigns.  Still, though, it at least means campaigns have to be able to mobilize enough passionate people, either by motivating volunteers or paying canvassers, to get out on the doors - something that top-down, oligarchic campaigns seem to struggle to do.  So, to the extent that the field presence of an electoral campaign is revelatory of some underlying grassroots enthusiasm for candidates or issues, it’s intriguing to think of that as an antidote to wealthy donors attempting to buy elections over the air.  Field is not a silver bullet, but I do think our tradition of field-heavy campaigning keeps Minnesota’s democracy a little healthier than a lot of other states.

          • Marcia Avner says:

            April 8, 2014 at 9:26 am

            Field does cost money. My hope is that it also draws in people in meaningful ways so that we can build a base for a reform movement. Very different level of engagement, obviously, than the ads the weekend before the election.

        • Laura Waterman Wittstock says:

          April 8, 2014 at 9:36 am

          Yes, Wy, in the end it is the votes that count. When I chaired Betsy Hodges transition advisory committee, I noted the number of passionate participants, all who could reach many, many voters on a one-to-one basis. That told me something about her campaign.

      • geothermaljones says:

        April 8, 2014 at 8:54 am

        At the end of one of the Sunday show debates Mr. McCutcheon stated he was for full transparency on campaign donations. One of the few ideas he raised that I agreed with…

      • Sherri Knuth says:

        April 8, 2014 at 9:34 am

        League of Women Voters MN supports increased disclosure of sham issue ads, sometimes called electioneering communications. Bills pending are SF 1915 and HF 1944. Passage is threatened by the opposition by the NRA and MN Citizens Concerned for Life. But these bills do not limit free speech; they only require disclosure. Also, communications to members are not included for the purpose of disclosure.

        • Geothermaljones says:

          April 8, 2014 at 9:48 am

          For years I’ve said ads with the disclaimer ” I’m Candi Date & I approved this message” should be sold as is. Any ad that mentions a candidate w/o another’s “I approved” statement should have a flat 500% tax rate that goes to either the candidate mentioned or to the dept. of education for further Civic education in our schools.
          Maybe the broadcasters can be held a bit more responsible for the truth in advertising.

    • WY SPANO says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am

      I agree, Laura.  We all know that this whole SCOTUS line of reasoning is nonsense.  Money is not speech and five Federalist Society heroes won’t make it speech.  Seems like the only way to change is to elect Democrats who appoint good judges or to do a constitutional amendment.  And as somebody else noted, that’s really daunting.  We’re left with accommodating this system.  Thank heavens there are at least a few rich people who are willing to support more progressive ideas.

  • Mike Fratto says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Claiming that unlimited campaign spending is free speech argues that golden rule:  Those that have the gold, rule!  We now have a House District so gerrymandered that it is almost impossible to unseat most office holders.  With this decision we opened the flood gates for more special interest money getting into politics

    The ability to spend your money the way you want is one thing.  However, in order to have fair elections the advertising field must be fair.  Unfortunately, with news outlets and talking heads dedicated to one philosophy where statements are seldom, if ever, challenged at the same level of public discourse, adding the ability to buy more advertising that misrepresents opponents as well as the candidate will make our election system nothing more than a waste of time.

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Mike, now you are getting to the core of the debate: what is the intent of the 1st Amendment and what are the implications of the chain of decisions coming from the court that move more and more to money as speech and all forms of entities as “people?”

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:32 am

    What does the line of decisions that we are seeing reflect about the political polarization in the country?

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Do you agree with Reince Priebus, chair of the RNC, that this ruling restores the voices of candidates and party committees and a “vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse?

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:44 am

    How can we popularize the understanding of the influence of money in politics? Until voters understand the elements of the system that work against them, or once they feel defeated by the power of money, what will engage them as voters and as advocates for change?

    • geothermaljones says:

      April 8, 2014 at 10:47 am

      Corporations don’t drive on potholed roads, voters do!

  • Dale says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Is it time for a constitutional amendment that can get outside influence out of politics?  Yes, money can facilitate speech but an elected official is supposed to represent the district that elects them.  How about requiring campaign contributions come from a person who will be eligible to vote for that office/ballot question.  It will create rich campaigns and poor campaigns but it will also mean that a single individual will only be able to buy one representative rather than spreading his money across the state/country and buying the entire government.

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:50 am

      FAscinating idea…has this been tried? Would this even out the impact of small donors? Would this force big donors to concentrate on fewer races? Remember that the McCutcheon decision applies to federal elections.

  • Brian Barnes says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:47 am

    With the current direction of the Supreme Court in that money does in fact equate to free speech, I agree with you W Y Spano, fixing the system does seem impossible. That said, the direction of “fixing the system” that most people take is having the Court overturn Citizens United. The McCutcheon v FEC decision, if anything, proves that in the near term, that is not a viable option.

    That takes me to what geothermaljones said in regards to public financing. I actually advocated for this (to a degree) during my campaign and was met with a lot of skepticism from both the conservative and liberal sides of the fence. It is seen widely as a tax and people tend to focus on the aggregate number being in the millions, not just a few dollars out of their own pocket.

    As we are not in a position to change the rules of the game so to speak, my view is that we need to change the game entirely and evaluate the system and come up with a way that only individuals (being defined as a voting person) can influence campaigns and that there is an equality clause in place to prevent the Supreme Court rulings of money equalling free speech from allowing an oligarchical system.

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 8:53 am

      Brian, and others, weigh in on how we might get to the place that Brian describes. Is a Constitutional Amendment a viable option?

      • geothermaljones says:

        April 8, 2014 at 9:07 am

        As I stated before with MN SF17 last year, If a single state passes this I think many states will follow. Texas has already proposed it, as well as many others. I believe Vermont has it on this years agenda.
        I don’t know that 34 states passing this is realistic or nor, but I do think Congress might take action if it sees some stirrings at the state level.

        • Marcia Avner says:

          April 8, 2014 at 9:19 am

          A group called “United for the People,” which is a coalition of over a hundred state a local organizations, has good info about the number of states that are already on board or trying to pass resolutions. Maybe this will happen!

          • geothermaljones says:

            April 8, 2014 at 10:29 am

            A resolution is a fine gesture, but many a New Years resolution barely make it to Valentines Day.
            An amendment on the other hand, can be downright scary as Dale noted earlier.
            ‘Be it resolved that raindrops on roses and wiskers on kittens ought to occur’
            Make that a law and roses and kittens will take note…

      • Brian Barnes says:

        April 8, 2014 at 9:12 am

        That’s a great question Marcia. I think in the long run it is almost required. However, it is almost an impossibility that two thirds of both the House and Senate would propose a Constitutional amendment. As for getting two thirds of the States to call a Constitutional Convention and thirty eight States to ratify… (I believe that none of the twenty seven have been passed through Constitutional Convention). …and while an extreme case, the 27th took from 1789 to 1992 to be ratified for what would seem to be a “no brainer”.

        The feeling I received last cycle is that while the electorate gets fired up upon occasion on this, the public outcry is far from being widespread enough to undertake such an option.

        • Marcia Avner says:

          April 8, 2014 at 9:22 am

          Sign. But we have seen the power of organized constituencies at the state level. I think one core need is investment in state infrastructures to support a core of groups that work on research, message, brilliant organizing, and a clear objective can make it happen. I say that even thought the Equal Rights Amendment couldn’t make it…

          • Brian Barnes says:

            April 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

            Nothing to disagree with there Marcia; I would love to see that type of investment!

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 8:48 am

    The NYTimes did an interesting comparison of the court when Justice Sandra Day O’Conner was on the bench and how that changed when Justice Alito was appointed. See the 4/3/14 edition, p.1

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 9:07 am

    There are a number of national organizations working to analyze the implications of McCutcheon as well as Citizens’ United. Common Cause under the new leadership of Miles Rapaport is worth a look, and the League of Women Voters is tracking history and ongoing state and federal resolutions/solutions.

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 9:10 am

    We the people have not demonstrated the organized political will to insist on change, whether through a Constitutional Amendment or other form. What will galvanize a public response from a big enough base to lead to change? The decisions in the latest big cases have generated a lot of public affairs discussion, but a general cynicism seems to lead to acceptance that this is “just the way it is.” Where is the rage? And who/how can galvanize interest and strategic efforts?

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 9:15 am

    BREAKING NEWS:
    Press conference on Wed., Room 125, Capitol: “Minnesota Campaign Finance Law Challenged by Donors, Candidates”
    called by Rep. Linda Runbeck (candidate for public office) former candidate Scott Dutcher, campaign donors and 2 attorneys from Institute for Justice. They will challenge MN’s “special sources limit,” the campaign finance law that says the first 12 ordinary citizens who donate to a State House campaign can donate $1000 and those who follow can only donate $500 or less.  This is being touted as a law suit that “presents one of the first opportunities for a federal court to apply the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon to a state campaign finance law.”

    Floodgates?

  • Kevin says:

    April 8, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Marcia,
    How many donors hit the maximum donation limit in Minnesota in a given year? It’s been shown that the number is very small on the national level. And to follow on that, what do you think will be the concrete impact in terms of dollars spent in Minnesota?

    Thanks!

    • Marcia Avner says:

      April 8, 2014 at 9:32 am

      Kevin,
      I think there is a lot of speculation about increased giving…we have a season ahead when we can monitor and assess in the Congressional races. I do think that where donors have targeted a specific candidate in a federal race they can now pour more into defeat or support for incumbents.

  • Marcia Avner says:

    April 8, 2014 at 9:33 am

    Thanks, all, for joining in this morning. This is a long term challenge, so stay tuned for more MN2020 dialogues and analysis of how we promote, protect, and defend a democratic system that works fairly.