In a post-Citizens United America — and in the midst of a presidential race awash in dark money — what hope is there for reform? Hillary Clinton on Tuesday offered a smart and realistic plan.
Clinton has long criticized the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and the era of political spending it encouraged, an era built on the fiction that big spenders aren’t connected to candidates’ campaigns. In line with this thinking, she reiterated her support for a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to bypass the Supreme Court and impose campaign spending limits. That may provide an attractive slogan, but it’s hardly realistic, and it plays down the risks of tampering with the First Amendment.
But Clinton also embraced a more positive and pragmatic approach. She would take the example of New York City, which matches small campaign donations with public money, thereby magnifying the voices of engaged citizens who can’t write big checks. For the first $175 of a donation to a participating candidate, the city matches every dollar with six additional dollars. Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., has proposed applying this sort of system to congressional elections, which Sarbanes estimates would cost about $500 million over 10 years. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has a similar plan to improve the public-financing system for presidential races.
Clinton doesn’t get into details, but her proposal would track these plans in basic structure. She stressed that only candidates who meet a certain threshold of support, measured by the number of their small contributions, would qualify for matching, that candidates would have to agree to a low cap on how much any individual donor can give and that there would be a limit on the amount taxpayers would be on the hook for covering.
The public matching approach adds options instead of reducing them. Candidates who want to raise money the old way can do so — but candidates who want to spend less time on the phone with out-of-district donors and more time fundraising at house parties with constituents could still mount credible campaigns.
Public matching wouldn’t be a panacea. But it could lead to more politicians being more responsive to larger groups of people. And, acknowledging that big-money groups could still influence elections with hundreds of millions of dollars, Clinton would demand more transparency. Outside groups that engage in “significant” spending would be required to disclose their “significant” funders, and quickly, so that voters could evaluate who is backing which candidate.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST