This Year in Campaign Financing

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Allison Hayward is vice president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which today releases “After 2010: A Modern Agenda for Campaign Finance Reform.” In some Q&A-ing, Hayward explains where we are and where we can be.

LOPEZ: How huge a year was this for campaign-finance law?

HAYWARD: Well, it was certainly an important year. First, it was a contentious and competitive political year — when serious pundits are, at one point, watching about 100 congressional races, that’s a lot of territory.

And of course, the Supreme Court of handed down its Citizens United opinion, which made an impact that is hard to disaggregate from the political scene. The D.C. Circuit also handed down Speechnow, which, along with Emily’s List and a couple of other cases, shows a real interest on the part of that key circuit in protecting political activity from undo regulation. So, lots of changes in the law, to be sure.

The way lawmakers approach the regulation of political activity needs to change. But I am reluctant to say that those changes are reflected in the degree of political activity we saw — I think that was bound to happen anyway, just through different channels.

LOPEZ: How wrong is President Obama?

HAYWARD: On campaign finance? Well, I think he’s not so much wrong as aggressive. He harnessed the Citizens United opinion in a polemical State of the Union address, where he insisted that after the opinion ”foreigners” would “buy” our elections. Not true — as Justice Alito apparently also believes.

Apparently his strategy has been to encourage political activists to work with him, rather than engage in independent activity. In a way, I share that view, but we would take an entirely different approach to attaining it.

LOPEZ: How will your specific proposals help freedom?

HAYWARD: Specifically, we are calling for the contribution limits that remain in the law to be reexamined, raising them to levels that address a real threat of corruption but also allow for robust participation. We believe that one of the factors that feeds the funding of independent groups is the excessively strict “hard money” limits. We would also like to see the restrictions on party-candidate coordination removed. Again, national parties raise and spend only regulated hard money — and they should be able to work with their candidates freely.

What we don’t advocate is the conventional way of “regulating” independent political activity — we oppose any efforts to thwart groups from speaking in politics. But what we have now is a distorted system caused by old restrictions that don’t do any good. Congress really needs to rethink how it regulates here.

LOPEZ: Is removing limits on coordinated party spending a goal a president who was complaining about “secret” donors in campaigns should be able to get behind?

HAYWARD: One would think.

LOPEZ: Did he, by the way, have a point in his criticisms?

HAYWARD: I’m not sure he did, at least not the way his supporters made the argument. They were quite willing to complain that “all this money” must be coming from “secret donors” but they were never willing to devise a rule to sort out the “political” money a group might raise from the ordinary revenues it would receive through dues, fees, and other nonpolitical activity.

LOPEZ: Should the tea party care about this report?

#more#HAYWARD: Absolutely. It is the ad hoc, grassroots groups that have the most to fear from campaign-finance regulations as we presently practice them. They’re complicated, nonintuitive, and a real pain for compliance. And those who would regulate more are targeting “outside” groups for additional restrictions. I put quotes around “outside” because this is one expression that drives me nuts. What are “outside groups” outside of? Isn’t the political process the way everybody debates and decides what leadership and representation they want?

LOPEZ: Is a big part of the problem leaving Washington with Russ Feingold’s defeat?

HAYWARD: No. I think the conventional reactionary approach to campaign finance is well established, even if the advocates going forward won’t have the charm and skill of Senator Feingold.

LOPEZ: What should Congress know about this report?

HAYWARD: There are constructive things lawmakers can do to make campaign- finance regulation better. The DISCLOSE Act, in particular, reflects the old way — where campaign regulation was a blunt instrument used to bash one’s political rivals.

LOPEZ: Is there any meeting ground with the White House? Does it matter?

HAYWARD: I’d like to think so. Sure it matters!

LOPEZ: Is any elected official voicing the goals of this report? Anyone you have in mind?

HAYWARD: We will be working with a spectrum of folks, in D.C. and elsewhere. This isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a partisan or ideological issue.

The Corner

The one and only.