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Clean up Campaign Spending, Restore Confidence in Our System

By Michael Thorning

Thursday, September 25, 2014

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The dramatic growth in elections spending over the last few years is obvious to anyone who has turned on a TV only to be met with a deluge of campaign ads. Political spending has doubled in the last decade, and more and new groups are getting in on the action.

Average American citizens and Washington insiders alike lack confidence in our campaign finance system, which breeds cynicism and distrust of our elected officials and institutions. BPC’s Commission on Political Reform (CPR) recognized the necessity of addressing money in politics when it issued its Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen Our Democracy in June. CPR commissioners agreed that there needs to be more transparency around political contributions and members of Congress need to spend less time fundraising.

When it comes to outside spending—money not spent by candidates or parties—the 2014 midterm elections are already the second most expensive cycle in our history. Not just the second most expensive midterm. The second most expensive ever, beat out only by the 2012 presidential election year. The most recent data compiled from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and the Center for Responsive Politics show that outside groups, excluding party committees, have spent $228 million—and counting—so far.

Images courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics

A series of recent Supreme Court decisions have allowed corporations, unions, and individuals to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections so long as they do so independent of any candidate. Prohibitions on corporations and unions donating directly to candidates remain in place.

With this came the rise of Super PACS and other groups that spend funds on elections without coordinating with candidates. And these groups are spending enormous amounts of money. In 2012, they spent $1 billion compared with $143 million in 2008. They exist on both sides of the aisle and represent beliefs from across the political spectrum.

What’s even more troubling is that many of these groups do not have to disclose who their donors are, as must be done with contributions to candidates and parties. The public is left with little to no information about who is behind the messages they see and groups cannot be held to account for their content. This raises serious concerns about the effect of undisclosed spending on the conduct of campaigns, the tenor and veracity of advertising, and the quality of information citizens receive.

To bring more light into the system, CPR recommends that there be full, robust and timely disclosure of all political contributions, including those made to outside and independent groups, so that citizens have full information about political ads.

Lawmakers also spend too much time raising money, and not enough legislating. CPR recommends that Congress limit the use of Leadership PACs to the top three congressional leaders of each party in both the House and Senate. Leadership PACs are committees that politicians use to help other candidates get elected. They were originally intended to give a small number of party leaders a way to raise money for party candidates. Currently, however, there are hundreds of them and members spend time raising money not just for their own re-election, but for their colleagues as well.

There is more to addressing the influence of money in politics than these recommendations, and the commission strongly encourages more study of that. But, these few steps can significantly impact the campaign finance landscape by bringing more transparency to the process and making sure members of Congress keep lawmaking as their top priority.

KEYWORDS: 2014 MIDTERM ELECTIONS, FEDERAL ELECTIONS COMMISSION, COMMISSION ON POLITICAL REFORM, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS, SUPER PACS