Jeb’s Campaign-Finance Solution Falls Flat with Reform Advocates

Jeb’s Campaign-Finance Solution Falls Flat with Reform Advocates

(Photo: AP/Dennis Van Tine

Jeb Bush caused a stir in New Hampshire Monday when he told CNN’s Dana Bash that he would “eliminate” Citizens United, the much-maligned Supreme Court decision that deregulated independent political spending. The former Florida Governor later called for a constitutional amendment to undo the ruling at a Nashua town hall.

"If I could do it all again I'd eliminate the Supreme Court ruling,” Bush told Bash on CNN. "This is a ridiculous system we have now where you have campaigns that struggle to raise money directly and they can't be held accountable for the spending of the super PAC that's their affiliate." Bush said that in lieu of a major Supreme Court shake-up, he would argue for a constitutional convention to overturn the ruling. 

The statement drew notice given that Bush has arguably been the biggest benefactor of super PACs since they were created in the wake of Citizens United. His super PAC, Right to Rise, has raked in nearly $120 million through the Bush family’s influential donor network, and so far has spent almost $60 million in the primary—mostly on attack ads that have done little to improve Bush’s dismal polling numbers. By way of comparison, the Restore Our Future super PAC that backed GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2008 raised $150 million in both the primary and the general election.

But no sooner did Bush come out against unlimited corporate spending than his campaign quickly walked back the former Florida governor’s statements. “He’s not advocating for additional restrictions on the ability of an organization to have political speech, he’s calling for increased transparency and for balancing it back to campaigns,” Bush’s spokesman Tim Miller told MSNBC.

Translation: Bush wants to reduce the impact of super PACs by allowing political parties and campaign committees to solicit unlimited contributions, so long as they are disclosed within a 48-hour period. Many Republicans argue that the role of super PACs would shrink if big donors enjoyed more freedom to give directly to candidates and parties.

But this solution cuts both ways, says election law professor Richard Hasen, at the University of California, Irvine. Candidates would be free to allocate funds more responsibly and more tightly control their messaging, as opposed to facing potential political fallout from off-message super PACs. But lifting candidate contribution limits also has big downsides, notes Hasen.

“The closer that the money gets to the candidates, the more potential there is for donor influence,” Hasen said in an interview.

The idea that campaigns and parties should be free to raise unlimited contributions has gained substantial traction since Citizens United. The idea appeals both to some political scientists and to Republican Party leaders who see unaccountable outside spending as a threat to establishment candidates, and who regard unlimited direct contributions as a way to strengthen the parties.

A couple of other GOP presidential candidates have voiced support for unlimited contributions coupled with enhanced disclosure requirements. Texas Senator Ted Cruz introduced a bill dubbed the SuperPAC Elimination Act 2014 that would remove limits on direct contributions and require disclosure within 24 hours. “I believe in free speech and the First Amendment, which means everyone here has a right to speak out in politics as effectively as possible," Cruz said last year.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also supports this reform model, and said last summer that he would “let anybody donate any amount of money to any candidate” so long as they disclose the contributions.

Bush’s campaign-finance solution has fallen flat with reformer advocates, though.

“If Jeb had a magic wand to create that system … and replace [Citizens United] with unlimited contributions, that would be a worse system,” says David Donnelly, who heads the liberal campaign-finance reform group Every Voice.

“Over the course of an election cycle, there would be significant focus on recruiting the wealthiest Americans to back candidates,” Donnelly predicts of such a plan. “Candidates would spend all their time focused on those who would provide 80-90 percent of the money—one or two people could bankroll a campaign.”

Donnelly says he suspects that unlimited contributions with robust disclosure is merely a GOP talking point. “[Republicans] know they have to say something about money in politics” given ubiquitous voter disgust across the political spectrum, Donnelly says. “I think they soft-pedal the unlimited contributions to candidates,” he adds, while failing to acknowledge that Republicans on Capitol Hill have little interest in bolstering disclosure.

Indeed, Cruz’s Senate super PAC bill has yet to garner a single co-sponsor.

To reform advocates, permitting unlimited contributions to campaigns and parties would make the political money system worse, not better.

"Replacing unlimited outside spending with unlimited contributions to candidates’ campaigns would not be real reform—not even close,” People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker said. “The bottom line, which Bush still seems to miss, is that billionaires and wealthy special interests should not be able to pour unlimited money into our elections, period.”