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2010 Elections: Secret Financing and the Campaign Finance Reform Battles to Come

Unless we enact new disclosure laws, secret contributions to outside spending groups are bound to dramatically increase in the 2012 elections, when both presidential and congressional races will be at stake.
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The Supreme Court, in Citizens United, eliminated one of the nation's principal laws to protect against government corruption and opened the door to campaign finance scandals which began to play out in the 2010 congressional races. As a result of the decision, one of the worst in Supreme Court history, this is the first election in more than 60 years where corporations and labor unions were free to spend money to influence federal elections.

As a result of the Citizens United decision, and the failure of five Justices to understand the nation's campaign finance laws, this also is the first election in nearly 40 years where hundreds of millions of dollars in secret money has flooded federal elections.

Major campaign finance reforms are essential to protect the integrity of our elections and the interests of the American people in honest government. The battle for these reforms will begin immediately.

Campaign finance reform victories can be won regardless of who controls Congress or the Presidency.

In 2000, legislation to require 527 groups to disclose their campaign contributions and expenditures was enacted with Republicans in control of the House and the Senate and a Democratic president.

In 2002, legislation to ban unlimited or "soft money" contributions to the national parties was enacted with Republicans in control of the House, Democrats barely in control of the Senate, 51 to 49, and a Republican president.

Secret contributions in political campaigns are a formula for influencing-buying corruption. It has happened before and will happen again.

You cannot have secret $100,000 or $1,000,000 contributions going to outside spending groups, without having the influence-seeking donors who provided this secret money also trying to buy influence and votes from the federal officeholders they have helped elect.

Unless we enact new disclosure laws, secret contributions to outside spending groups are bound to dramatically increase in the 2012 elections, when both presidential and congressional races will be at stake.

In addition to new disclosure laws, Congress also must take steps to prevent the blatant abuse of the tax laws that took place in this election, such as the misuse of the tax exemption for 501(c)(4) organizations by political groups like Karl Rove's brainchild, Crossroads GPS.

Just as history tells us secrecy results in scandal, history also tells us that scandal results in reform.

The Watergate campaign finance scandals in the 1970s resulted in the creation of the landmark presidential public financing system which served the nation well for most of its existence until it became outdated when Congress failed to modernize it. The Watergate scandals also led to the enactment of limits on individual contributions to candidates and parties, upheld by the Supreme Court as necessary to prevent corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions.

The soft money scandals in the 1990s led to the ban on unlimited contributions to the national parties upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, a decision that was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court earlier this year. The soft money ban continues to serve the country well in preventing a system of legalized bribery of federal officeholders.

Similarly, major campaign finance reform battles lie ahead. The most immediate reform to be pursued involves passing the DISCLOSE Act to ensure that organizations spending money to influence federal elections are required to disclose to voters the donors financing those expenditures.

The Act passed the House in June and in September fell just one vote short of the 60 votes needed to reach the Senate floor for action. Another effort must be made in the post-election session to pass the DISCLOSE Act in the Senate and enact it into law.

If this cannot be accomplished, however, the battle for the DISCLOSE Act will begin immediately in the next Congress.

A New York Times/CBS News poll recently found that 92 percent of Americans support disclosure of the contributions financing campaign expenditures. Opponents of disclosure cannot sustain the practice of secret influence-buying contributions being spent to influence federal campaigns, in the face of overwhelming public support for disclosure of the contributions.

An expected Republican-led effort to reinstate the soft money system must be defeated. The corrupt soft money system was banned by Congress in 2002 and the ban was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003 and again by the Court this year.

The argument will be made by proponents that the limits on contributions to the national parties should be eliminated or greatly increased so that parties can "compete" with outside spenders.

But you cannot solve the problems caused by the corrupting role being played by outside spending groups by legalizing much greater and more direct corruption in the form of huge influence-buying contributions made to the national parties to benefit federal officeholders. It should be noted, furthermore, that even with the soft money ban, the national parties will raise as much as $1 billion or more for the 2010 congressional election cycle, far more than the amount spent by outside spending groups.

In testifying in support of the soft money ban in 2003, former Republican Senator Warren Rudman said:

Individuals on both sides of the table recognize that larger donations effectively "purchase" greater benefits for donors... Large soft money contributions in fact distort the legislative process. They affect what gets done and how it gets done. They affect whom Senators and House members see, whom they spend their time with, what input they get, and make no mistake about it, this money affects outcomes as well.

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson also testified in support of the ban stating that a system of unlimited contributions "prostitutes ideas and ideals, demeans democracy, and debases debates." Simpson said, "Too often, Members' first thought is not what is right or what they believe, but how it will affect fundraising. Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about - and quite possibly votes on - an issue?"

In the next Congress, the fight will continue for fundamental reforms to repair the presidential public financing system and create a similar system for congressional races. The goal of the new systems is to make citizens who donate small contributions the key players in financing our federal elections. Small donor contributions raised on the Internet and magnified in importance by public matching funds have the potential to revolutionize the way we finance our campaigns.

These reforms will be vigorously pursued in the new Congress. A serious effort also will be made to address the absence of enforcement of the campaign finance laws caused by the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, and in particular by the three Republican FEC commissioners who are ideological opponents of the laws and have shown no interest in enforcing or properly interpreting them.

If the voices and interests of average citizens are to be heard in Washington, then the role and importance of small donors in financing our elections must be greatly enhanced and the role of influence-seeking larger donors, bundlers and outside spenders must be greatly diminished.

We have won important campaign finance reform battles before. We can and will win them again.