Why Donald Trump Is Terrible for Campaign Finance Reform

In February 1974, eight months before Congress passed the most extensive campaign finance reform in American history, Ted Kennedy gave a speech on the floor of the Senate to support the effort.

"Who really owns America?" he asked. "To the man in the street, as the recent polls make clear, politics in American life has now sunk to the depths of public service in the heyday of the notorious spoils system of the nineteenth century."

America had just suffered through the Watergate scandal -- and while Kennedy didn't end up getting all he wanted in the final bill, President Gerald Ford later that year signed into law America's biggest legislative overhaul of campaign finance laws, laying the foundation for this "totally new experiment," as Kennedy called it.

Today, a conservative Supreme Court has derailed that experiment, and more cash is pouring into our political system than at any time in American history. And yet, despite the regression of the past few decades, this upcoming presidential race might signal a changing tide. Leaders are beginning to seriously discuss reform, political pundits are covering it, and a presidential candidate, Larry Lessig, is running on a single-issue platform to pass a set of proposed amendments to sanitize the political system of big money.

The only problem? 1974 had Ted Kennedy. Today, we have Donald Trump.

"I'm happy to concede that [Trump] is the most influential person on this issue right now," Lessig, the Harvard professor and leading campaign finance reformer running for president, admitted to the National Journal in August.

That's a scary place to be in.

Late last month, Trump continued his rise as the public face of campaign finance, instructing all super PACs supporting him to return money to his donors. His "massive wealth," Trump says, helps him repel the allure of dark money in his campaign. In August, he had condemned a "broken" campaign finance system to massive applause, almost unprecedented on a Republican stage: "Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them... And that's a broken system."

Indeed, Trump is no Ted Kennedy on any issue. But he is uniquely terrible for campaign finance, despite the views of reformers who eager to embrace their issue's time in the spotlight.

First off, the latest FEC filing reveals that Donald Trump isn't that independent anymore. Of a fundraising total of nearly $4 million this past quarter, he donated only around $100,000 of his money. What's more, Trump had substantial connections to the Make America Great Again PAC before it shut down two weeks ago.

A common refrain at a Trump rally involves Trump asking, "Should I take the money?" and the crowd responding with a long "No!". But he is taking the money -- lots of it.

There's a case to be made that he's more immune to big money than other candidates. Over two-thirds of his donations in the past quarter were less than $200. That's correct, but it's equally important to note that Trump's independence from big donors is distracting us from the fact that he's still evidence of a corruption of our system.

In what world does allowing the ultra-rich to self-finance their campaign -- giving billionaires a leg up in entering the race and sustaining their candidacy -- make the electoral process fairer? While one of campaign finance's aims is to fight corruption of individual candidates by big money, another aim is to avoid corruption of the system as a whole. Even if we believe that self-funded campaigns are less prone to quid pro quo transactions between candidate and donor, surely a system where billionaire politicians hold extraordinary advantages over regular politicians is just as corrupt.

As Lessig said, "One would have thought we fought a revolution about that idea and sent the aristocrats home." Trump's effect on campaign finance discourse is to confuse the public between his elitist vision of financial-political independence against the more equitable one we ought to be pursuing.

The biggest argument against Trump as a model of campaign finance, however, is that he neglects the role of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter on this issue. In the 1976 ruling Buckley v. Valeo, considered the "original sin" of campaign finance, the Court equated money to speech, bestowing it the same First Amendment protections and launching an anti-regulatory refrain that continues to this day.

Since then, the Court has used this logic to strike down regulations over "expenditures" (spending that is not directed to or on behalf of a candidate) from corporations and advocacy groups, pummeling down cash floodgates. This judicial overhaul of the post-Watergate campaign finance laws is based on a decades-long intellectual foundation that must be swept away and re-made; reform is not just a matter of striking down the famous 2010 Citizens United decision.

Indeed, even if a President Trump succeeds in carrying out the majority of executive and legislative reforms recommended by 13 public interest groups--such as signing public financing legislation and advancing rule-making to compel disclosures of political contributions and expenditures -- he will face an impossible Supreme Court.

A Trump nominee to the Court would further exacerbate the numbers. Because this nominee will undoubtedly hold a bundle of conservative positions that Trump agrees with -- on abortion, unionization, religious liberty and discrimination -- it is unlikely that they would hold a liberal position on campaign finance. Without the Supreme Court shifting to the left, legislation is at a high risk of being thrown out.

The Trumpian emphasis on the muscle power of the executive branch causes us to forget the definitive importance of the Court in remaking America's campaign finance laws. If there were more liberal-leaning justices on the bench, the Court's campaign finance rulings would likely "snap back hard," as Nick Penniman of Issue One told the New Yorker in January.

In Buckley, the justices wrote that campaign finance is a debate over the "integrity of our system of representative democracy." Given the massive stakes and the urgency, the campaign finance reform movement's leader cannot be, should not be, and should never be, Donald Trump.