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.

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

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