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View from the Hill

Q&A with Rep. David Price on campaign finance

In one of the most consequential Senate races in the midterm elections, North Carolina has seen an influx of money both to candidates and independent expenditure organizations. 

In the past two years, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., has raised $8.3 million, according to her campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, independent expenditure organizations have spent more than $3.9 million in the state. 

Earlier this month, in McCutcheon v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that limits on the amount money individuals can donate to federal candidates and campaigns unconstitutional. 

View from the Hill talked to Rep. David Price, D-N.C., who represents the Research Triangle and is a leading advocate for tightening campaign finance rules, about the recent court ruling and the future of campaign finance laws.

View from the Hill: You spoke out against the recent Supreme Court ruling, which found aggregate spending to be unconstitutional. What are your main concerns about how this will affect campaigns?

David Price: This is yet another (unintelligible) that is allowing megadonors to swamp everybody else in our political system. As you know, the Citizens United decision took the lid off for Super PACs or so-called independent groups, which in reality, aren’t very independent. And now it takes another very serious step and says contributions directly to the candidates, directly to the parties are subject to no overall limits and one simple person can give millions of dollars to these candidates and parties and without limit and that I think crosses another line.

In a way it’s another nail in the coffin of campaign finance reform. But this does really get into territory where you’re talking about direct contributions to candidates. That means that the traditional warnings of corruptions or appearance of corruption are especially relevant and of course there’s a great deal made of the free speech rights of multimillionaires but the court didn’t seem equally concerned about the speech of smaller donors or ordinary citizens being drowned out. 

And I think that’s also a First Amendment concern so those are the two things I would highlight: the original warning about corruption or appearance of corruption under the foundation of so many of these laws, and then also the drowning out phenomenon where mega donors come to totally dominate the airwaves.

VFTH: You talk about corruption or the appearance of corruption. What are some ways you think this could corrupt the political system?

DP: Do you think somebody’s going to give $3 million, which is now what is permitted under this ruling, to candidates and parties and not expect something in return? It does pass the laugh test does it?

VFTH: With this in mind, you’ve supported laws like the DISCLOSE Act, and the Stand By Your Ad Act and you recently said you’d be adding amendments to the Stand by Your Ad Act for Super PACS. What would be some other reforms you are looking to reform the campaign system within the bounds of this Supreme Court ruling?

DP:  One category of reforms is to try to mitigate the negative effects of these recent decisions, especially the Citizens United decision. The Super PACs are a enormous new presence in American politics threatening to dominate most other voices. The DISCLOSE Act, which you referenced is simply take the principle of the Stand by Your Ad Act, that’s my bill that says that, “I paid for this message. I take responsibility for this message.” 

I’m making the equivalent law for Super PAC. My answer is to flash on the screen the top donors to that Super PAC. That’s the Stand by Your Ad equivalent that the DISCLOSE Act proposes. If you can’t limit the amount of spending, at least disclose who’s doing it. 

And the second reform would be to tighten up those rules on independence, which is to say if they are truly independent, then they really have to be independent and there’s various ways you could make certain of that. The rules right now are very very loose. The second category of reforms would be much bigger proposals like reinstating the public funding of presidential campaigns. It’s always about to slip away from us. 

Republicans now turned against it but it’s really the most successful post-Watergate reform and we need to modernize it but we also need to salvage it, I think. And then I also have a rather ambitious proposal to have a system of matching funds for small contributions to Congressional campaigns. Those are of course longer-range, much more comprehensive proposals.

VFTH: How likely is it that these proposals will pass with a Republican House, even after these midterm elections?

DP: Not very likely under current Republican leadership and current Republican ideology. That’s changed because the current Stand By Your Ad Act and earlier campaign reforms were bipartisan but it’s the Tea Party-dominated Republicans has decided that not even disclosure is acceptable. It’s frustrating, it’s very grim. The prospects are very grim. It’s very difficult. 

You ask what might change that, well an election or two might change it and if these Republicans get fed up for their own reasons with Super PACs and with this big money domination. The day may come when they decide that this isn’t good for them either. But I sure don’t see that day coming right now. Right now they seem to be celebrating both the Citizens United and the McCutcheon decision.

VFTH: You’re a former political science professor at Duke University. How does money in politics affect polarization?

DP: I think it’s a very strong link. If you look at these Super PACs and this applies mainly to Republicans, you see Super PACS and who they’re funding, it’s often Tea Party challengers. If their Tea Party challenger doesn’t win, doesn’t beat the more balanced and moderate incumbent, then it pushes that incumbent to the right. 

Either way the Tea Party forces — and I’m using Tea Party as a kind of shorthand, I’m not talking about the Tea Party as an organization. I’m talking about the new extremism — the outside money gets dumped on anybody who talks about that dares to talk about cooperating with the other side, that’s a big factor in keeping us apart.

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