Politics Q&A: Campaign-Finance Reformer Mary Boyle

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For those concerned about the influence of money in politics, things have never been worse. But one activist sees reason for hope.

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The state of campaign-finance law is in the spotlight thanks to super PACs and their massive impact on the presidential campaign. The widespread angst about the rise of these groups and their largely unrestricted campaign spending has brought renewed attention to the often lonely crusade of groups like Common Cause that seek to reduce the influence of money in politics. Mary Boyle, Common Cause's vice president, is a former newspaper reporter who has been with the group for a decade. In a recent interview at a Washington coffeeshop, she talked about why she believes there's hope for reform. This interview has been edited and condensed.

You're a campaign-finance reform advocate. Is that a pretty lonely fight a lot of the time?

Yes, certainly. You say "campaign-finance reform" and a lot of people's eyes glaze over. It is difficult in times when the economy hasn't collapsed, when the mortgage foreclosure crisis hasn't just happened. It is hard to get regular people who've got a lot of other worries and problems -- their kids, their families, their schools -- to pay attention to why it matters that some billionaire is writing $10 million checks to presidential candidates and why they should care about that, why that matters to their life.

It's a little easier now. Americans are just acutely aware they have gotten the short end of the stick. People are getting this. I think that Occupy [Wall Street] deserves some of the credit for really raising the national narrative around that issue.

Do you get a sense that people are newly mobilized around this issue?

Right now I feel like Common Cause's issues are really front and center. There is more money than ever in politics. There's the Citizens United decision that unleashed all this corporate money. In a presidential year, Common Cause also works on protecting the vote and fighting things like voter ID laws that, in our view, make it harder for people to vote. We are also looking at some of the process issues that we think are a factor in grinding Washington to a halt, like the filibuster and how frequently the Senate is abusing that. We are working on some filibuster-reform issues.

There's this real sense in the country that Washington isn't working for average Americans. We would agree with that, and we're trying to work on some of the fundamental issues as to why it's not working. A big part of that is our campaign-finance system and how we pay for campaigns. We have basically a system of legalized bribery where, if you want to run for elected office, you go to the people who are most willing to give you big checks or bundle big checks, and those also happen to be the people who want something from government. So you've got this system where people who want something from government are also the ones paying for the campaigns of our elected officials. It's kind of no shock that one of the outcomes of that is a government that is looking out more for their donors than for average people. And this is something that cuts across party lines -- it's not an issue about Democrats or Republicans.

Is it really true that there's more money in politics than ever before? A hundred years or so ago, didn't you have robber-baron types who essentially were the patrons of individual candidates?

That's true, and I would argue right now, with super PACs, we are there again.

To be perfectly cynical, you talk about regular people getting mobilized around this issue, but does that really matter if the politicians aren't interested in reform? Is there any political will to change?

We think there are a number of solutions, and one is essentially a public-financing system for Congress. We believe that most people who seek public office go in with best of intentions. The system ends up, for lack of a better word, corrupting them, making them make these decisions where they're going to their big donors and they're taking their campaign money because they have to if they want to be reelected. Votes are taken, decisions are made that favor that [donor]. One of our arguments to the Hill and to politicians in general is, if we had a different system, a small-donor public financing system, you wouldn't have to spend all your time dialing for dollars -- begging for money, basically.

What response do you get to that argument?

We generally get agreement, but I think there is some truth in the idea that everyone who's been elected to office has gone through this system. It's almost like a hazing. They have mastered it, they got through it, they got it down, they know the tricks, they've got their donors. They are reluctant to change it.

Isn't there also a sense that it's just not possible to get money out of politics, no matter what you do?

There's some of that. But I think [it's overblown]. Two years ago, before the Republicans took over the House, we had close to 200 cosponsors of the Fair Elections Now Act. We had Republican cosponsors and Democratic cosponsors. This is not something that just lives in the head of good-government groups.

There's a lot of confusion about what Citizens United did and didn't do, with a backlash recently from those who say it's being blamed for a lot of things, like super PACs, that actually have nothing to do with that particular decision.

What Citizens United did do is allow corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money. What Citizens United did not do is allow the Sheldon Adelsons of the world to give their $11 million checks. He still could have done that in 2008 -- it wouldn't have been to a super PAC, but maybe it was to a 527. But it's been a string of Supreme Court decisions that have loosened all the rules. There was a second decision [SpeechNow v. FEC] based on the Citizens United decision, and that made it easier for the Sheldon Adelsons of the world to give that money to Super PACs. So they could have done it before, but the SpeechNow federal court ruling after Citizens United made it easier.

How?

The SpeechNow decision got rid of the $5,000 limit that had previously existed for individual contributions to independent groups.

But the limits for individual contributions to candidates still exist.

It's only independent groups. The only rule of super PACs is you can't coordinate with the candidate.

But super PACs still have to disclose their donors, right? I think a lot of people mix up the worry about secret money with the worry about corporate money.

They still have to disclose, but if I am a corporation and I give money to the Chamber [of Commerce] and the Chamber gives money to the Super PAC, that way I can hide the fact I have given.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 has written a good explainer on exactly this question, how and why Citizens United has brought us to this point. Because some people are out there saying, well, Sheldon Adelson could have done what he did before.

Right, large independent expenditures by wealthy individuals aren't new. What's happening with super PACs now is analogous to what was done by the Swift Boat Veterans or MoveOn in 2004, isn't it?

That's right, but there was not unlimited corporate money involved. The latest figures show that corporate money thus far has only been about 17 percent, so people are saying, see, this whole corporate nightmare is not coming to fruition. We think it's way too early to say that, because a lot could be going on through [groups like] the Chamber that's not disclosed, because disclosure rules are so thin. There are lots of ways to funnel things. Two, we're not in the general election yet. And three, we think one of worst things about Citizens United is that it cleared way for just the threat of spending. The idea that a wealthy corporation could spend a million dollars or even six figures, which in a congressional district is enough to swing a campaign -- that creates kind of not a great legislating climate. If you're a member of Congress, you're looking over your shoulder. You're not thinking, "How can I cast a vote in the best interest of my constituents?"

Politicians would say you're the one being cynical when you assume that money influences their votes in this way. They argue that they get contributions from all kinds of different interests, but when it comes time to vote, they put that aside and listen to their constituents above all.

Who can look you in the face and say, "Yes someone gave me a million dollars to help me win my election, but I don't put any credence in what they say to me, I am not in any way looking out for them"? I mean, it's just not human nature. We're not saying in every case they are buying votes, but when someone gives you a large amount of money, they are in the back of your head.

Is it really possible to create a muscular campaign-finance regime? Before Citizens United, we'd just had McCain-Feingold, which was supposedly landmark campaign-finance legislation, and we still had things like those massive independent expenditure campaigns in 2004.

That's true, it's not like we went from paradise to where we are now -- things were bad before. We do think there is a way to have a small-donor public financing system. The Fair Elections Now Act is similar to state systems in Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona that are running and working. The gist of it is, you raise small contributions from a certain number of people in your district based on population. So let's say [the threshold is] 500 $100 contributions. You then qualify as a serious, legitimate candidate, and you get the qualifying money -- you can't accept lobbyist or special-interest money, and contributions from your district are matched with federal money. There's talk of [the match being] 4-1. So a $100 donation is suddenly worth $500. It's very heavily reliant on public financing, but it still allows people to give those small donations. From our perspective, these are the healthy donations that are not looking to buy favors or legislation.

But there is a public-financing system in presidential elections, right? And Obama opted out of it.

There is, but it's badly broken. It needs to be fixed by Congress. It needs more money, the timing has got to be changed to fit a modern campaign. It hasn't been updated in a long time. We think it can and should be fixed.

How damaging was it that Obama chose not to participate in the public financing system in his last campaign, and that he recently reversed his stance on approving the super PACs supporting his campaign?

It was damaging that he opted out, and we were very disappointed he gave the green light to the super PACs. As someone who ran on change, someone who opted out of the presidential public-financing system saying, "but I'm going to fix it," and then didn't do that, it was disappointing. We put out a pretty strong public statement to that effect.

If Barack Obama, whose platform and worldview seem about as close to the good-government activist viewpoint as any president in memory, isn't going to do it, who is? It seems like if even he's going to surrender to the status quo in this regard, anybody would.

We think what has yet to unfold in this campaign in terms of the money, in terms of the corruption we may or may not see immediately, but that will come with these huge donations -- we certainly don't hope for a crisis, but like I said, it takes a tipping point. We think we are at that tipping point, and we will see it even clearer in the months to come. The American people will see what happens when our elected officials are allowed to take millions of dollars, what happens in return in terms of how our government is run.

Coordination between campaigns and super PACs is supposed to be illegal, yet you see candidates speaking at their super PACs' fundraisers, you see super PAC donors like Adelson and Foster Friess hanging out with the candidates, you see the same staffers working on both the campaigns and the super PACs. Is there a sense that there's no meaningful regulation left at all, and if there is, if it's challenged, the court will just knock it down?

The Roberts Court certainly has been moving in that direction. A mockery is basically being made of our campaign-finance laws. I would not say there is a sense of fear [of enforcement] out there. On top of that, we have a Federal Election Commission that basically has its hands tied behind its back. They are constantly deadlocked and totally ineffective. It's politicized, there are three Democrats and three Republicans, it's a disaster. In our view, it has to be remade and restructured. They are appointed by Congress to basically patrol Congress, and that doesn't work.

Speaking of making a mockery of the campaign-finance laws, what do you think of Stephen Colbert's activism of late?

It's great. This obviously can be dry stuff, and the fact that he has gotten people excited and interested and talking about super PACs is fabulous. [Last week] we had a rally and 100 people came out to the Supreme Court in the middle of the day to complain about super PACs and urge the court to reconsider. That's significant. I do think this is gaining traction. People are getting this, and they're angry about it.

Image: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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