Common Cause Interns

Should Big Money Be Required for Political Viability?

Written by Taylor Henley

How can you win an election without receiving huge contributions from high-dollar donors?  Quite frankly, you can’t.  Just ask Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana who ran in the Republican presidential primaries this past spring.

Mr. Roemer testified at a recent Senate Judiciary hearing (“Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs”) about his campaign pledge to refuse any donations larger than $100.

Not surprisingly, he failed to raise enough money to make him a major contender in the race.Without sufficient funds, he could not effectively get his message out to voters.

Because of his lack of media coverage and public support, he was not invited to any of the debates, which denied his campaign a national platform to gain more support.  This vicious cycle ultimately destroyed his candidacy.

As a political science major who followed the Republican primaries fairly closely, I considered myself at least familiar with the names of most of the candidates who ran—and yet I had no idea that Buddy Roemer ran for president until I heard him testify at the hearing last week.

Listening to his story drove home the unfortunate reality that countless well-qualified candidates at every level of government are consistently being shut out for lack of funds.  Is this what our democracy is all about? Do we really want a system that forces candidates to cater to the interests of high-dollar donors instead of the interests of all Americans?

Proponents of the system argue that campaign funding and donors have little “demonstrable” effect on the roll call votes of politicians.  However, according to Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and participant in Wednesday’s Bipartisan Policy Center-sponsored discussion (“The Capital Behind Capitol Hill: Developments in Campaign Finance in the 2012 Election Cycle”), money has a significant agenda-setting effect.

Put simply, politicians won’t bring topics to the floor that could offend their donors.  Furthermore, forcing legislators to spend much of their time in office raising money negatively impacts political action, adding to the steady erosion of public opinion of our government.

If we continue along this path, according to former campaign manager John Trippi, “It is much more likely that all the candidates in both parties will be meeting with billionaires than figuring out how to mobilize millions of people.

Fortunately, there are steps that we can take to rectify this broken system.  Common Cause supports public financing of campaigns, full disclosure of campaign contributions, and limits on campaign financing through the proposed Fair Elections Now Act, the DISCLOSE Act, and the Amend2012 campaign to overturn Citizens United (the Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited campaign spending).

Though the barriers to reform are undoubtedly steep, public pressure for change has found success in the past.  In Montana, for example, a population fed up with “copper baron” William Clark bribing his way into a Senate seat led the drive for the 17th amendment, which allowed for direct election of Senators for the first time in American history.

“Washington, DC appears to be broken,” declared Roemer at the July 24 Senate Judiciary Hearing. “But it’s bought first,” and those who profit from the status quo have little incentive to repair it.  The only way the necessary changes will come to fruition is if the public keeps pushing for reform.

DARE to Make A Difference in Our Elections

Written by Kristen Caruana

Standing before his colleagues and the crowd in the sweltering August heat, Rep. Dennis Kucinich declared that while it hot outside, if we don’t act on campaign finance reform we were going to find ourselves “somewhere even hotter.”

Kuncinich’s warning of a proverbial Congressional-hell does not seem far off given our currentcampaign arena. Citizens United has opened the floodgates on unlimited spending from secret sources, and the time has come for decisive action to reclaim our democracy.

This past Wednesday, Democratic House members held a press conference on their DARE agenda. In addition to Kucinich, the group included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, House Democratic Caucus chair John Larson, DISCLOSE Act sponsor Chris Van Hollen, as well as Representatives John Sarbanes, James McGovern, Adam Schiff, and David Cicilline. In addition to Common Cause, organizations such as Public Campaign Action Fund, Public Citizens, and Americans for Campaign Reform came out to the press conference in support, and Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign spoke in praise of DARE.

DARE outlines four actions the Democrats plan to take: Disclose, to disclose the source of donations to campaigns and expenditures; Amend, to amend the Constitution and reverse the Citizens United decision; Reform, to reform the campaign system in favor of low dollar funding of elections; and Elect, to vote leaders who will do these things into office.

Leading the press conference, Pelosi called on Congress to “honor the vows of our Founders to support a democracy that honors an election, because it is the voice of the people and not the checkbooks of the very, very few.”

We applaud Pelosi as well as the other attendees for their commitment to this cause. We earnestly hope that her efforts for transparency and reform will be as tough on her fellow Democrats as they are on the opposing party. Either way, we cannot let the momentum stop here; we too must take a stand in the fight to reclaim our elections. Contact your representatives today and ask them to support the DARE agenda!

Click here to find out how to contact your representatives today and ask them to support the DARE agenda!

Citizens United and Super-PACS Take Flak on Senate Floor

This past Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. Civil Rights, and Human Rights, led by Sen. Richard Durbin (IL),  took up the issue of corporate money in politics, and the debilitating effect it has on our democracy’s ability to reflect the peoples’ will.

The hearing, entitled “Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs”, featured Senators Bernard Sanders (RI), Tom Udall (NM), and Patrick Leahy (VT), as well as former Governor Buddy Roemer (LA), Representative Donna Edwards (MD), and Harvard Law Professor Laurence Lessig.

These expert witnesses spoke out against the Citizens United decision, lending their voices to the nationwide call for a Constitutional amendment that would close the “independent expenditure” loophole once and for all.

Here are some highlights from the 2-hour hearing:

If you’d like to see more testimony, check it out on PFAW’s Youtube channel.

Full transcripts can also be found here, sorted by witness.


Great exchange between Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Cato’s Ilya Shapiro at yesterday’s Senate hearing on Citizens United.

New Ways of Evaluating Campaign Ads

By Kristen Caruana

Each election season we brace for certain inevitabilities: tensions run high, lawn signs blanket our neighborhoods, and the airwaves teem with political ads. But since Citizens United opened the floodgates on unlimited campaign spending and from secret sources, those familiar annoyances of the have evolved dangerously.  Empowered by anonymity, ads run by super-PACS and other third-party groups could become more prevalent, negative, and downright nasty.

The media and pundits narrow in on the ads, asking if this candidate was unfair, if that candidate was too negative, how the public feels about the ad, if the candidate has alienated his or her campaign, and so on.  They have yet to focus upon how the public – the very targets –evaluate the ads for ourselves. It’s time to turn to the audience for their opinions, instead of grasping at straws to determine an ad’s effectiveness.

The Brookings Institute’s “New Ways of Evaluating Campaign Ads” event featured John Geer and Doug Rivers and their work on the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project. By asking the people what they think of the ads – as opposed to relying on media coverage and pundit squabbling to do so – and with the aid of technology, the project turns the attention back to we the people. The project poses “controversial” and “game-changing” ads to a sample of 600 Americans – which includes and oversample of “200 pure independents.”  After watching the ads, the sample responds online with their reactions, indicating if they found the ad to be “hopeful,” “truthful,” “memorable,” and so on. They also record their emotional responses, ranging from “happy” to “disgusted.”

At the Brookings event, Geer called the project as a way of “moving beyond an elite discussion” of pundits, media, and candidates on the merit and effectiveness of ads, thus to “democratize and systemize” the way we judge ads, as well as to “get some reliable date.”

While the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating Project is an admirable endeavor, it certainly is not a remedy for the ills of Citizens United. In those terms, the project is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a stab wound. Nonetheless, it is an incremental and commendable step towards the people’s reclaiming of the electoral process. 

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens expounds on his dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United. - Colbert Report, 1/19/12