17 Things We Learned About Money in Politics in 2017
First a confession. I did not write a “16 Things We Learned about Money in Politics in 2016.” It was a strange post-election period and I just couldn’t put pen to paper.
But what did we learn about money in politics during the Earth’s ride around the Sun this year?
17. There’s still an appetite for reform. Polling showed that a majority – 57 percent -- of Americans want limits on Super PACS, and that 60 percent of Independents, 51 percent of Democrats and even 48 percent of Republicans are opposed to the Citizens United ruling.
16. Corporations are feeling the pressure from stockholders on political spending. According to The 2017 CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability, 120 companies in the S&P 500 have decided to refrain from making independent expenditures as a corporate policy.
15. Campaign law enforcement isn’t totally dead. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) levied a large fine ($350,000) against the American Conservative Union to settle a claim that they allegedly funneled $1.71 million in dark money into a Super PAC in the 2012 election. Super PACs are required to be transparent.
14. Big money still runs the show. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) continue to be top spenders in state races. In 2017, according to www.followthemoney.org, in the Virginia governor’s race, which had a price tag of $70 million, the RGA kicked in $5.75 million for former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie who lost by nearly nine percentage points, while the DGA kicked in $6.3 million for the winner, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
13. Even running for state legislature is getting mighty pricey. The total cost of elections to Virginia’s 100-member House of Delegates was just shy of $40 million. Control of the chamber was decided by a single vote in a recount, splitting the body 50-50, and ending 17 years of GOP dominance.
12. Deregulation is all the rage. The House version of the tax bill repealed the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious groups and churches from making political statements. It is possible the provision could be removed from the measure’s final version.
11. GOP Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell still rules the roost. Riders to impede the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from working on an anti-dark corporate money rule that at least 1 million people support were again placed in the federal budget.
10. All was not doom and gloom, however. A little light did break through. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the state’s DISCLOSE Act. Among other reforms, the law requires clear disclosure about who paid for a political ad.
9. Big sky country can keep their good law. The Ninth Circuit upheld Montana’s contribution limits in Lair v. Motl. The Court ruled “Montana’s limits are both justified by and adequately tailored to the state’s interest in combating quid pro quo corruption…”
8. The nation can keep our good law. Federal contribution limits for individuals were upheld unanimously by the D.C. Circuit en banc in Holmes v. FEC. Barring an appeal to the Supreme Court, this means limits for the 2018 election are $2,700 per person per election.
7. Localities can be laboratories for democracy. The St. Petersburg City Council (Fla.) passed an ordinance limiting Super PACs contributions to $5,000 and curtailing spending local elections by foreign-owned businesses.
6. Flipping a congressional district is still an uphill battle. In the struggle of money versus gerrymandering, gerrymandering appeared to win in the most expensive House race in history, Georgia’s 6th district. According to www.opensecrets.org, Jon Osoff, the Democrat running in this red district spent $29 million and lost to Karen Handel, a Republican who spent $6 million. Adding to the high price tag: there was also $14 million in independent spending against the Osoff and $6 million spent against the Handel.
5. Campaigning doesn’t stop. Taking the perpetual campaign to new heights, President Trump launched his reelection campaign committee as soon as he assumed office. Two expenditures have raised eyebrows: paying for lawyers for himself and his son in their ongoing legal troubles stemming from the 2016 election.
4. Your Facebook ad said what? After Facebook revealed that they had run at least $100,000 worth of political ads during the 2016 election paid for in rubles, the FEC took steps toward crafting a new rule for better disclosure of online ads. 150,000 public comments urged the Commission to Act.
3. Congress tiptoes toward being responsive. In reaction to the disclosure of Russian political advertising, The Honest Ads Act was introduced in the Senate.. If passed into to law, the measure would improve transparency of on-line political advertisements. The race of the tortoises is on between this effort and the FEC (above) to see which regulations are enacted first. .
2. Dusting off the Constitution can be helpful. A federal judge in DC v. Trump has granted two state attorneys general permission to subpoena 23 Trump businesses and require them to preserve documents in a suit alleging violations of Constitution’s two emoluments clauses. And in a separate case, CREW v. Trump, which also alleges violations of the emoluments clauses, there was an oral argument in October to determine if the case should proceed. Watch this space. The key argument in both cases (and in others) is President Trump is in on-going violation of the Constitution by accepting money from foreign governments through his many businesses. This could be a nothing burger or it could be a very big enchilada.
And 1. Which indictment is next? The Trump Russia investigation could turn on campaign finance law. None of us know which direction the Special Counsel’s investigation will go. So far there are four indictments, and two guilty pleas—both for lying to the FBI. The range of potential criminal charges could be vast. But since the Special Counsel is looking at foreign interference with an American election, the case could all come down to violations of federal campaign finance law. If former White House Counsel Bob Bauer is right—and I think he is—a charge of violating the long time ban on American campaigns’ soliciting or accepting things of value from foreigners could be the way this story ends.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a Brennan Center Fellow and an Associate Professor of Law at Stetson University College of Law. She is the author of the book, Corporate Citizen? An Argument for the Separation of Corporation and State (Carolina Academic Press 2016) and of Safeguarding Markets from Pernicious Pay to Play: A Model Explaining Why the SEC Regulates Money in Politics.