In the fickle world of American politics, last year’s election seems like a lifetime ago. The issue of election campaign finance reform has similarly disappeared from the forefront, even as politicians are already gearing up for 2014.
The newly introduced OPEN Act tries to refocus public attention on campaign finance by requiring companies and unions to disclose their political donations. If passed, it will shed light on the donations of corporations and labor unions, providing transparency which at present is sorely missing. The prospects of the bill passing are grim, however.
Only 12 months ago Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama were gearing up for the general election, furiously raising money to fuel their campaign machines. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, newly-founded super PACs were raking in funds from individuals, corporations, and labor unions alike, which no longer had limitation on how much they could give.
The decision was decried by politicians and pundits as undemocratic. Stephen Colbert even started his own super PAC to show how absurd they are. Surprisingly, no change to fundraising laws came from Congress in time for the election, and the result was the most expensive election campaign in U.S. history.
Representative Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) has tried to revive reform efforts by introducing the Openness in Political Expenditures Now (OPEN) Act to the House of Representatives. The bill requires companies to divulge information on their political expenditures to their shareholders on a regular basis, and require labor unions to do the same for their members. This would include the date and amount of donations, as well as the identity of candidates who benefit from them. Unlimited donations would still be allowed, however.
On his website, Cartwright said concerning the act, “We have a responsibility to ensure that our campaigns and elections are transparent, fair, and free from anonymous influence.”
Just how much the proposed act would change behavior is not clear. The political inclinations of companies and unions are not necessarily secret. Shareholders are more interested in the profitability of companies than in their politics. However, the act would expose to the general public the exact amount of money being given to campaigns. This could lead to some surprising revelations, and spark refreshed outrage. This might not cause changes to donation patterns, but it would at least put this activity under new scrutiny.
In this way, the public would have greater knowledge of the factors influencing Washington. For the first time, detailed donation information will be widely available, and the public may choose to act upon this information as it pleases. This would help restore power to the average American voter three years after the Citizens United ruling.
The chances of the OPEN Act passing any time are almost nil. It is currently co-sponsored by 20 other Representatives, all of them Democrats. However, the House is deadlocked and the federal government is approaching its statutory borrowing limit yet again. Even if a budget deal were agreed upon today, so many incumbents are dependent on large donations from big business and labor that getting significant support for the act from either party would be next to impossible. Thus there is little hope for any meaningful changes to campaign finance regulations in the immediate future. Washington politicians are already anticipating the 2014 midterm elections. Even now some are looking to 2016; PACs have formed both supporting and opposing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, even though she has not even mentioned her intentions of running.
For now, the age of super PACs and unlimited campaign donations seems poised to stay. Change will only come with political courage and willingness from both parties to work together. Washington currently lacks both.