Checks: Political Money & Democracy

Is Obama Finally Getting Real on Money in Politics?

Campaign-finance reform advocates were on high alert during President Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night, looking for any indication that Obama might finally take steps to curtail the influence of money in the political system.

For months, reform advocates have been running a pressure campaign aimed at pushing the White House to reshape its legacy of inaction on money in politics—one that’s been characterized by a laundry list of promises that were never fulfilled.

Obama’s speech signaled that he appears to have heard the criticism. The president admitted that one of the few regrets in his presidency was his failure to fix the nation’s broken political system, and he dedicated one of the speech’s four themes to the need to revitalize American democracy by reforming campaign financing, restoring voting rights, and ridding states of gerrymandered districts.

“We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections,” Obama stated. “And if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.”

Obama continued: “We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.”

Many reform advocates say they are encouraged that the president intends to start a serious conversation on the need for reform rather than simply delivering glossy promises—something that he’s been criticized for before.

“He has been heavy on rhetoric and light on action on this topic,” says Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “It’s a problem that they themselves have recognized; this is the first step to correcting it.”

With the president set to look for reform solutions on the road, groups like Every Voice, a leading group backing for public campaign financing, argue that Obama should capitalize on recent state and local wins in 2015.

“As he travels the country to push for the reforms he mentioned [in his address], he should talk about the ways in which Americans around the country—from Maine to Seattle and Arizona to Miami—are coming together to fight for a democracy that works for all of us," Every Voice President David Donnelly said in a statement.

Now that Obama has pledged to rededicate himself to reform in his final year in office, reform advocates are seizing on his State of the Union message to argue one last time that the president should pass an executive order that would require federal contractors to disclose all political spending. It’s an action that advocates have been pushing the president to take for years. And now that riders in last year’s budget deal have closed other reform avenues, advocates of change say the executive order is Obama’s last chance to take policy action.

Gilbert, who has led the lobbying campaign for the executive order, said she remains optimistic that Obama will sign it. Gene Sperling, a former close adviser to Obama, tweeted his support for the order. Gilbert said she views Obama’s rhetoric as a signal of things to come. “We look at this as a hopeful indication,” she says.

Still, others have stopped believing in Obama’s lofty rhetoric.

“President Obama's continued inaction is a slap in the face to anyone who voted for him after believing his promise to fix the broken system of big money-dominated politics,” Kurt Walters of the anti-corruption group Rootstrikers said in a statement. “President Obama must take immediate executive action to fight secret political spending—or deliver the apology he will owe the country for breaking his promise to take action.”

But for most reform advocates, an Obama executive order to force disclosure on federal contractors would go a long way toward salvaging his otherwise tarnished reputation as a champion of change.

Winners and Losers in the Impending Ad Blitz

The presidential candidates and the outside groups backing them are opening up their wallets in a very big way leading up to the Iowa caucuses on February 1. The ad blitz means a windfall for some businesses and a financial loss for others.

The big winners are local TV stations in the early primary states. As The Guardian reported, Republican candidates are dumping money into expensive ad buys during the upcoming Super Bowl game as they try to take advantage of the massive captive audience.

“In New Hampshire and South Carolina, where the following primary will take place on 20 February, contenders have dumped more than $1m (sic) into the Sunday evening event, according to a Guardian review of FCC filings, possibly with more cash to come,” Sam Thielman writes. “Local TV ads in those two states—which customarily range in the four and five figures—have stretched into the hundreds of thousands.”

And TV stations stand to make even more money off super PACs that are trying to buy Super Bowl ads. That’s because while TV stations are required by law to give political candidates the lowest ad rate, no such requirement exists for outside groups.

But for car dealers, the political ad onslaught is turning into a pain in the wallet. As Bloomberg’s Tim Higgins reports, car dealers are the single biggest purchasers of local TV ads in the country. And as political ads begin to take up as much of one-third of local ad spots, car dealers who rely on TV to get the word out are being priced out.

In the hardest fought political battlegrounds—contentious counties in swing states—the impact is so profound that auto sales could slow as much as 3 percent. National groups representing auto dealers are now putting pressure on broadcasters to remember who their best customers are in election years and otherwise, according to Higgins.

The one group that stands to make money no matter what is political consultants. As well-funded campaigns like that of Jeb Bush pour tens of millions of dollars into TV ads, they use consultants to handle the logistics of ad buys. In an industry with a standard ad placement commission of 10 percent to 15 percent, that translates into big bucks. Jeb Bush has already funneled the vast majority of his ad buys—about $40 million worth—through the consulting firm Oath Strategies. For more on how political consultants are cashing in, read my interview with Adam Sheingate, whose new book on the multibillion-dollar political-consulting racket is out this week.

As the market for political messages targeted to crucial audiences soars, one thing is certain: There’s a lot of money to be made, and apparently, a lot of money to be lost. 

Why California's Citizens United Ballot Initiative May Not Matter

Voters in California—the most populous state in the union—have won the right to voice their collective opinion on whether Congress should pass a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, the infamous Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited outside political spending in 2010.

The issue could make it onto the state’s 2016 ballot thanks to a California Supreme Court decision earlier this week. The court ruled that the state legislature has the authority to put advisory measures on the ballot seeking non-binding opinions from voters. The measure had initially been poised to go on the 2014 ballot, but a conservative group challenged it in court on the grounds of legislative overreach.

Since the Citizens United ruling, campaign-finance reformers have mounted a nationwide movement to overturn it via constitutional amendment. That effort has led 16 states and more than 650 localities to officially call on Congress to pass such an amendment.

The state Supreme Court’s action has drawn cheers from progressive opinion leaders.

“[A] vote by Californians in favor of an amendment that would renew the authority of local, state, and federal officials to regulate campaign fundraising and spending has the potential to send the most powerful signal yet in support of the constitutional remedy,” wrote John Nichols in The Nation.

There’s just one problem. Passing a constitutional amendment is a long and near-vertical climb in American politics. First, a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress would have to approve. Second, three-quarters of the states would have to ratify such an amendment at a constitutional convention. All that at a time of unprecedented political polarization.

While reform advocates have enjoyed tremendous success educating Americans about the disastrous impact of the 2010 ruling, and turning Citizens United into a household name, trying to fix it through a constitutional amendment looks an awful lot like a pipe dream. Indeed some campaign finance reformers have almost entirely given up on the idea.

Some even say the movement to overturn Citizens United has an unintended down side, in that it gives politicians cover to argue that they are pro-reform while backing a constitutional amendment that has no real chance of passing.

“I’m really skeptical of politicians who aren’t serious about it and use the phrase ‘constitutional amendment’ in order to raise money,” Zephyr Teachout, who now heads the reform-minded Mayday PAC, told the Prospect in a July interview.

Instead, there’s growing consensus within the reform movement that the best way to overturn Citizens United is by electing a Democratic president who pledges to appoint pro-reform justices to the Supreme Court. The next occupant of the White House could potentially appoint four justices. Each Democratic presidential contender has already promised to do just that.

So what does the California ruling really do to rein in money in politics? As election law expert Rick Hasen writes for the Los Angeles Times, not much.

“The California Legislature doesn't really need the voters' advice. If it did, it wouldn't have called for a constitutional convention back in 2014,” Hasen argued. He went on to quote California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu’s concurrence: “It blinks reality to suggest that the Legislature—plainly aware of opinion polls showing that broad majorities of Americans are opposed to Citizens United—enacted [the ballot initiative bill] in order to investigate the citizenry's views.”

Instead, Hasen posits a political motive: “What's probably going on is that the Democratic-dominated Legislature sees an issue that is likely to excite Democratic voters and get them to the polls.”

At this point, the most the California initiative would do is drive home to politicians that broad swaths of the American electorate are fed up with the increasing influence of money in politics. Even then, it’s not clear that American politicians—who have done an awfully good job until so far of ignoring voter outrage—would do much about it.

Presidential Ads and the Legality of Lying

As presidential campaigns enter offensive mode leading up to the Iowa caucus, candidates—as well as their personal super PACs and supportive dark-money nonprofits—are starting to launch their respective ad blitzes. And not surprisingly, many of them feature fast and loose interpretations of facts.

The presidential election is an open race with over a dozen Republican contenders—a few of whom running for office for the first time—all trying to capture the news cycle with some sensational headline. “There seems to be more whoppers [this election] given all those factors,” says Eugene Kiely, director of (Here’s a detailed account of all the political whoppers so far.)  

For instance, Donald Trump released a misleading ad on Monday that used aerial footage of people streaming across Morocco’s border, though the ad seemed to imply that that it was Mexico’s border.

And late last month, Ted Cruz’s campaign released an ad that took a direct shot at Republican rival Marco Rubio’s involvement in bipartisan immigration reform. “Their misguided [Gang of Eight immigration] plan would have given President Obama the authority to admit Syrian refugees, including ISIS terrorists. That’s just wrong.”


That talking point had already been debunked by political fact-checkers when Cruz first tested it, but that didn’t stop his campaign from using it in an ad. Glenn Kessler, for The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, promptly gave the assertion a “Four Pinocchio” rating, saying, “In this ad, Cruz has taken a ridiculous claim and brought it to new heights of absurdity.”

As Cruz’s dig at Rubio has been shown to be false, is there anything that legally keeps candidates from lying in political ads? There are strict truth-in-advertising laws enforced for commercial ads. However, freedom-of-speech protections allow politicians to lie in advertisements without consequence. In fact, as has explained, the Federal Communications Act even requires a broadcaster to run political ads uncensored—even if the station believes the information is untruthful. Broadcasters are free to reject any ads from outside political groups for any reason, though that is highly unlikely given the astronomical ad rates they can charge outside groups like the single-candidate super PACs that are dropping millions on ad buys.

But individual candidates’ lies are uniquely protected. Candidates’ freedom of speech is put first and foremost while the burden of sorting out fact from fiction falls on the voters. So, barring some new constitutional interpretation of free speech, fact-checking groups like, Politifact, and the Post’s Fact Checker are pretty much the only things that serve as enforcement against political falsehoods on the airwaves.

Though some research has shown this to be effective in keeping candidates honest, the GOP primary doesn’t seem to adhere to any of the traditional rules of politics. Getting called out on blatant lies isn’t hurting candidates’ campaigns—and in the case of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and now Ted Cruz, lies seem to lead to better polling. 

For the GOP, A Small Step Forward on Campaign-Finance Reform

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar explains the Stop Foreign Donations Affecting Our Elections Act. 

Conservative Republicans in Congress have taken one small step on campaign-finance reform, and one (potentially) giant leap forward for bipartisanship.

Last week, Freedom Caucus conservative and Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar introduced a bill, the Stop Foreign Donations Affecting our Elections Act, that would close a loophole he says allows foreigners to illegally make online contributions to campaigns. Requiring candidates’ online-contribution forms to disclose the three-digit security code on the back of credit cards as well as a valid U.S. billing address, the bill’s supporters say, will deal a blow to foreign nationals’ ability to influence American elections.

The legislation is an admittedly limited measure that addresses an issue that some think really is not much of a problem. After all, it is already illegal for foreigners to contribute to American candidates, parties and PACs.

“Is there some evidence that credit cards are being used to get around that restriction? I have not heard of that,” Kenneth A. Gross, a D.C. election lawyer and a former associate general counsel for the FEC, told the Center for Public Integrity last week.

However, campaign-finance reform advocates say the bill’s importance goes beyond its limited practical impact. There are two things more important than the scope or potential impact of the bill for campaign-finance reformers. First, it’s noteworthy that a group of Republicans has actually introduced campaign-finance legislation.

“It’s always good to have Republicans in Congress express interest in this issue area, because for so long, McConnell has kept everyone under lock and key,” says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is a leading proponent of campaign-finance deregulation.

“If you’re a member of the Republican conference and you go out on this issue, you’re going to get slapped by leadership. It’s very difficult for members of the GOP to get too far out talking about money in politics,” McGehee adds.

For conservative organizers and former political consultant John Pudner, the bill’s introduction marks an important milestone. Pudner has been promoting a conservative campaign-finance overhaul since he launched his organization, Take Back Our Republic, nearly a year ago. Pudner is best known as the mastermind behind for Virginia Republican Dave Brat’s Tea Party ouster of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor back in 2012. Pudner has now shifted gears and is heading up Take Back Our Republic, which has set out to convince Republicans to take up the cause of campaign-finance reform. And this legislation, which Pudner helped craft, appears to be the one congressional Republicans seem most willing to back.

That could be because Democrats have been far more successful at harnessing the power of online donations. Gosar pointed out at his press conference on Capitol Hill last week that Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 took in about $500 million in small online contributions, arguing that foreigners could have been free to exploit the loophole and influence the election.

Still, the bill does have two Democratic co-sponsors, making it one of the only bipartisan campaign-finance reform bills in Congress. (Democrat Derek Kilmer of Washington and Republican Jim Renacci of Ohio introduced a bill in June aimed at fixing FEC gridlock).

“Ever since Citizens United, Capitol Hill has been highly polarized when it comes to money in politics,” says Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the public interest group Public Citizen. “Everything from disclosure to contribution limits to how to deal with super PACs…No bipartisanship. Just the mere fact that you have Democrats and Republicans [on the same bill] is a breakthrough.”

Reform advocates like McGehee and Holman are hopeful that this bill—even with limited hope of passage—signals increasing interest among Republicans to take on money in politics, even if it’s limited to foreign influence for now.

There are more substantial ways to address the illegal flow of foreign money, they argue. For instance, it’s become clear that foreign donors have been able to influence state ballot measures ever since the FEC deadlocked on that issue. Additionally, the closing the ability of foreign corporations to send money through U.S. subsidiaries is another opening for foreign influence. Finally, the rise of “dark” money in political elections is a huge opening for foreigners to quietly tip the scales in American elections, which McGehee says is by far the largest foreign loophole. Tackling any of those issues would arguably do far more to close the foreign money spigot than Gosar’s bill.

Yet, in days of unprecedented political gridlock and a Republican leader who’s dead-set on deregulating campaign finance, any inkling of reform from the right is a breakthrough.  

For Watchdogs, Budget Deal a Mixed Bag

For the past couple of weeks, a number of controversial riders aimed at deregulating the campaign finance system and curtailing President Obama’s ability to increase the transparency of undisclosed political spending have been at the center of federal budget negotiations. A coalition of progressive reformers has been mobilizing to stop the riders.

And now, with the announcement of a budget deal late Tuesday, it’s become clear that campaign finance reformers won some and lost some.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had tried to push through a rider that would have lifted the cap on how much political parties may spend in coordination with candidates. Reform watchdogs had objected that it would create an end-run around the contribution limits, while the conservative House Freedom Caucus had panned it as a bid to stifle Tea Party candidates not sanctioned by the Republican mainstream. Ultimately, that measure was dropped from the deal, suggesting that McConnell had no appetite for an intra-party battle.

"The last thing the American people want is to give big donors more influence in politics which is exactly what McConnell’s proposal to lift party coordination rules would have done,” Nick Nyhart, president of Every Voice Center, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the bill includes other measures that attack efforts to unveil secret money in our elections.”

Those included a yearlong provision that effectively blocks the IRS from finalizing new regulations now in the works that would define what constitutes political activity by social welfare and other tax-exempt groups. Reform advocates say clarifying the rules is vital to pulling back the curtain on undisclosed political spending by groups that say they promote the social welfare but focus principally on elections.

Another rider blocks the SEC from requiring public corporations to more fully disclose their political spending. Though progressive watchdogs unanimously oppose these riders, they may not have made much difference anyway. The IRS had been dragging its feet on rulemaking for months, and SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White has signaled her unwillingness to impose a disclosure requirement on corporations.

Progressives and their allies on Capitol Hill also successfully beat back a rider that would have barred President Obama from taking executive action to require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending, which has been a major policy priority for reformers. Again, though, the White House does not appear poised to issue such an executive order—and Republicans likely knew that going into negotiations.

Also left out of the deal was a last-minute measure that would have defunded the (already irrelevant) presidential public financing system by eliminating the tax write-off that funds the program. McConnell also (unsurprisingly) broke his promise to institute mandatory Senate e-filing for campaign finance records.

Bottom line: the most consequential campaign finance rider—McConnell’s increased coordination measure—was killed. But measures to increase disclosure have now been blocked—a partial loss for reform advocates.

More Than a Dozen States Eye Automatic Voter Registration

Advocates of automatic voter registration won two legislative battles in Oregon and California this year, and lost another in New Jersey when GOP Governor Chris Christie vetoed automatic registration legislation last month.

Now the question is whether 18 states mulling a variety of automatic voter registration bills will approve or reject those proposals. The bills would in one form or another allow government agencies to transfer voter eligibility information to state election officials, who would confirm and register eligible voters, excluding any who chose to remain off the rolls.

The push for automatic registration comes at a time when voting rights advocates are contending with state-based initiatives around the country that erect a variety of barriers to the polls. These include voting restrictions in North Carolina that have become the subject of a federal challenge.

It’s also the first presidential election since the Supreme Court in 2013 reversed key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Congressional Democrats have proposed legislation that would reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and restore voter protections, but it has languished on Capitol Hill.

As an antidote to state-based initiatives that make it harder for voters to cast ballots, automatic voter registration holds out the promise of expanding the electorate. Proponents of automatic registration, who include Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders, say it saves money, reduces administrative hassles, and improves the accuracy of the voter rolls.

Automatic voter registration legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, but as with Voting Rights Act reauthorization, no one expects quick action on Capitol Hill.

By contrast, more than a half-dozen states and the District of Columbia are considering automatic voter registration legislation that could become law in 2016. In March of this year, Oregon became the first state to enact automatic voter registration. Next came California, which approved automatic registration in October. Similar proposals are pending in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.

Key states with voter registration battles on the horizon include:

New Jersey – Advocates backing the state’s Democracy Act legislation pledged from the start that if Christie vetoed it, they would move forward with a ballot initiative to enact it via a constitutional amendment. New Jersey lawmakers have publicly committed to taking that step. Their challenge is to reduce over 70 pages of legislation into succinct ballot initiative language for voters to digest. The key question is which provisions from the original bill will remain, but advocates are optimistic. To get on the ballot in November of 2016, a resolution must be introduced and approved by a three-fifths majority in both legislative houses. If this doesn’t happen, the resolution can get on the ballot in November of 2017 if both houses approve it by a simple majority in two consecutive years.

Illinois – Prairie State lawmakers introduced an automatic voter registration bill in May, and began hearing official testimony in October. This follows the enactment of a bill in January that expanded early voting and made same‑day registration permanent, institutionalizing a pilot program launched in November of 2014. The state already approved online voter registration in 2013, setting the stage for quick action on automatic voter registration.

Alaska – In August, Lieutenant Governor Byron Malloy certified a ballot petition that may ultimately lead Alaska to implement automatic voter registration through the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend program as opposed to through its driver’s license offices. (Most of the pending bills propose registering voters automatically through their motor vehicle departments.) Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend program allocates annual portions of the state’s oil revenues to eligible Alaskans who qualify through a stringent application process. To secure a place on the state’s November 2016 ballot, advocates must now gather signatures that equal at least 10 percent of the voter turnout from the state’s most recent election, and from at least 30 of Alaska’s 40 House of Representative districts. The Alaska proposal is important because it could serve as a model for how to automatically register voters through government agencies other than motor vehicle departments, such as the U.S. Postal Service and social services offices doling out Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.

Is Adelson Spending Going Underground?

Tonight, the leading Republican presidential contenders will descend upon Las Vegas to participate in this year’s final GOP debate. And in a perfect metaphor for the rising influence of billionaire mega-donors, the debate is being held at The Venetian, the palatial casino owned by notorious Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.  

Adelson spent close to $100 million in the 2012 election, but in this cycle both his chosen candidate and his expenditures remain something of a mystery. In an election increasingly dominated by undisclosed “dark” money, Adelson enjoys ample opportunity to funnel large sums into politically active tax-exempt groups that operate outside the disclosure laws.

Though Adelson has held off making any public endorsement, there’s been considerable speculation about his support for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. According to Politico, Adelson was said to be on the verge of throwing his weight behind Rubio last spring. Talk of a Rubio surfaced again at the end of October. Rubio reportedly calls Adelson several times a month to discuss his campaign and has had several in-person meetings with him at his Las Vegas office.

Soon after first meeting with him in the summer, Rubio reciprocated support, coming out in support of legislation that would ban online gambling, a major Adelson priority. However, despite Adelson’s pledge to “spend whatever it takes” to kill online gambling, the bill has little chance of passing in either the Senate or the House.

As for Adelson’s spending, that, too remains a question mark. In 2012, most of the $98 million he spent was fully disclosed in the form of contributions to PACs and super PACs. Adelson’s expenditures included $20 million to prop up Newt Gingrich’s flagging primary campaign before supporting Mitt Romney to the tune of $30 million.

But since that election, Adelson’s spending has become less transparent. GOP insiders have said that he’s given more and more to prominent dark-money groups rather than to super PACs that must disclose donors. In 2014, his only major public contribution was $5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund.

The stakes are enormous for White House hopefuls and many Republican contenders have made personal pilgrimages to meet with him in Las Vegas, dubbed the “Adelson Primary.” And his policy positions have inspired a game of one-upmanship between the candidates.

He has a notably hardline stance on Israel, rejecting a two-state solution, supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and calling for a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran. At a presidential forum hosted in early December by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an organization Adelson founded, most of the 14 the GOP candidates present, including Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump denounced Obama’s Iran deal.

“Israel stands on the front lines of our civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam,” declared Rubio at the event.

But Adelson voiced concern after the 2012 election that he was being cast as a political villain, and stated that he would give more to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations that aren’t required to disclose donors.

Such so-called dark money groups are already dominating the 2016 elections, and campaign-finance reform advocates are sounding the alarm that many are promoting single candidates, not issues. Most notably a nonprofit group called Conservative Solutions Project that is affiliated with a Rubio super PAC has come under close scrutiny in recent weeks for ads that blatantly support Rubio.

Adelson may well have already contributed to one of these dark money groups, but there is no way to tally that spending. “If he decides that he doesn’t want his name disclosed, the last few election cycles have shown that is very easy to do if you pay the right lawyers,” says Robert Maguire, a political money investigator for the Center for Responsible Politics. “There’s no way to track this unless someone makes a big mistake.”

Adelson was criticized in 2012 for attacking Romney in early primary states and subsidizing Gingrich’s long-shot campaign, which insiders say hurt Romney’s candidacy in the long run. This time, he appears determined to fend off such attacks.

“He's being very careful this time, very strategic,” Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston told the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s also worth noting that in the last presidential race, Adelson didn’t unleash his first significant super PAC contributions until January of 2012, when he gave $5 million to Gingrich’s Winning Our Future super PAC, according to Center for Responsive Politics.

As Adelson treads lightly in the primary this time around, tonight’s debate could be the deciding factor for a public endorsement, or maybe a more private endorsement in the dark money alleys of our new political landscape.  The question, then, would be: Will Adelson’s millions—public or private—have more impact than they did in 2012?

Voter Outrage Over Political Money Continues to Escalate

Even as most of the presidential candidates have pivoted their focus to foreign affairs and the rise of ISIS, poll after poll makes one thing clear: voters are still concerned about the influence of money in the political system.

This voter alarm is escalating hand in hand with campaign spending. The Pew Research Center released a report last week showing that even as voter turnout ebbs and flows between presidential and midterm elections, the amount of money dumped into congressional campaigns grows with each cycle. At the same time, the proportion of total spending that comes from outside groups like super PACs has soared since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. In the meantime, spending by traditional PACs and party committees’ spending has held steady.

And as the 2016 races heat up, this election cycle is on pace to see by far the biggest influx of political money in American history. Candidates—mostly Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—have dished out plenty of money-related accusations, and will no doubt do so again in this week’s presidential debates (which are the last of the year). Yet the candidates have spent surprisingly little time talking about actual policy solutions.

Meanwhile, polls showing voter disgust over money in politics just keep piling up.

·      Last week, an Associated Press poll showed that 78 percent of both Democrats and Republicans favor requiring donor disclosure—87 percent believe full disclosure of donors would be an effective reform in the face of the rising tide of “dark” money in elections.  

·      A Pew survey released in November showed that more than three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats believe that money has more influence politics now than ever before. A full 77 percent of American thought there should be spending limits for campaigns; 64 percent thought the high cost of running for office discouraged good candidates from running.

·      According to a summer New York Times/CBS poll, nearly half of all Americans (across the political spectrum) think we need to completely change the way we fund campaigns, with wide support for reining in super PAC and wealthy donor influence.

·      In the wake of Citizens United, 78 percent of Americans thought the highly consequential ruling should be overturned, according to a Bloomberg survey.

The challenge, of course, will be building public consensus around solutions. Debate moderators could help move the conversation forward by asking pointed questions about candidates’ reform proposals. So far the debates have been heavy on political drama, and short on concrete policy discussion. But until candidates tackle the issue directly, voter anger will likely continue to mount. 

Obama's One Last Chance to Tackle Dark Money Spending

Progressives who have been pressuring President Barack Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending got fresh ammunition this week with the release of a scathing report faulting the president’s campaign finance “legacy of inaction.”

President Obama has talked a big game on campaign-finance reform, says the report released by Rootstrikers, a grassroots anti-corruption group, but he has failed to follow through.

Obama promised to push public campaign financing through Congress, as well as participate in and fix the ailing presidential election funding system. He’s repeatedly bemoaned the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and the subsequent flood of “dark” money into the political process. And, in the face of a recalcitrant Congress, the report says that he’s repeatedly shied away from using his executive power to pass reform.

Now Obama has one last chance to match rhetoric with action. Activists have pressed on multiple fronts for the Obama administration to pull back the curtain on the billions of dollars in undisclosed “dark” money spent on elections. They’ve called for stepped up enforcement and regulations at the Federal Election Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Most recently, progressives have launched a full-court press to get Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contactors, at least, to fully disclose their political spending, including the money they donate to politically active trade associations and “social welfare” organizations. They argue that as levels of political money soar higher and higher, such an order would at least shine a light on the spending of at least 70 percent of Fortune 100 companies.

“President Obama said in his State of the Union that a better politics means spending ‘less time drowning in dark money ... that pull[s] us into the gutter,’”  Common Cause President Miles Rapoport said in a statement back in March. “The public interest demands we curb the culture of pay-to-play that infects Washington—but first we have to know who is beholden to whom. That’s why it’s important that the president use his authority to help build a ‘better politics’ and sign this executive order.”

For advocates behind that campaign, the Rootstrikers report comes just in time.

“President Obama has no one to blame but himself for his failing legacy on money in politics,” Kurt Walters, Rootstrikers campaign manager, said in a statement. “It's cynical even by Washington standards—Obama has said for six years that he's outraged at Citizens United but hasn't bothered to do anything to combat the decision's effects. We need action, not empty rhetoric.”

The report calls on the president to take action by his final State of the Union address in January, which some have identified as the latest point that executive action could realistically expose dark money spending in the 2016 elections.

Reform advocates are paying close attention to negotiations over the federal spending bill, which among other campaign-finance riders that would curb the president’s ability to increase disclosure through executive action. How the White House treats these rider threats will likely signal whether or not the administration plans to act on any part of the disclosure agenda.

“It’s fanciful to think the president is sitting uninvolved and then a bill just arrives on his desk,” said Walters in an interview. “If it gets to his desk with one or more [campaign-finance riders] on it, it will be because the administration allowed it to be such a low priority that they were willing for it to come on his desk.”

In December of 2014, Obama failed to veto the so-called Cromnibus spending bill, which included a rules change that dramatically increased spending limits to the political parties for special accounts that pay for conventions, recounts, and buildings.

Rootstrikers has circulated a petition demanding executive action on disclosure that has already gained 100,000 signatures. That’s the threshold that, according to a White House policy enacted in 2011, requires an official response from the administration.

Progressive organizers, which include such Obama allies as Credo and Demand Progress, say they haven’t given up. They point to past successes with similar public pressure campaigns on such issues as Internet neutrality and the Keystone XL pipeline, which they say helped force the White House’s hand.

“I think you’ve seen it in a lot of areas, where there’s a lot of hard-edged pressure and a month or two later he’ll take action,” Walters says.