Rep. Adam Schiff has reintroduced a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to set reasonable limits for campaign spending, and allow states to set up public financing for candidates, if they choose to do so.
The Democratic representative for the 28th Congressional District, which includes West Hollywood, aims to overturn Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that has made it impossible to regulate the billions in campaign spending unleashed over the last two decades, Schiff stated in a press release.
The amendment would also overturn the Supreme Court decision Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett, which struck down an Arizona law that allowed public financing of a candidate if their opponent exceeded certain spending limits.
Following the announcement of his amendment, Patch submitted a series of questions for Schiff, a vocal advocate of campaign finance reform since his election in 2000.
1.) What kind of resistance do you expect from reintroducing this amendment?
Resistance will be strong, but so will support. At present, many of my GOP colleagues derive benefit from the massive unregulated expenditures unleashed by Citizens United, but in time it will be recognized for what it is -- the scourge of an informed electorate and the bane of both parties. The amendment goes to heart of the problem with the Citizens United decision -- the Court's reasoning that "independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," and therefore may not be subject to regulation in the way contributions can be. Time and experience have shown the folly of that reasoning, which goes back as far as the Court's earlier decision in Buckley v. Valeo.
It's my hope -- working with a task force of like-minded Congress Members -- that we can begin by passing the Disclose Act, which would bring transparency to many of these massive expenditures while building support for an amendment.
2.) If you agree that there's a pretty low chance of success, would you say that you've drafted this legislation to shine a light on a problem that you feel plagues the system?
There are a number of constitutional amendments currently introduced seeking to overturn Citizens United, all of them with a singular purpose -- to place reasonable content neutral limits on expenditures in campaigns as we already do with direct contributions to candidates. The amendment I drafted with Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe, for whom I once served as a Research Assistant, draws the right balance -- enabling Congress to regulate both independent expenditures, as well as direct contributions, and allowing states to adopt public financing if they choose to do so.
It is indeed my goal to bring attention to the problems with our campaign finance system, but I'm also hopeful of building a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to support campaign finance reform, as we did back in 2001 when passing the McCain-Feingold reforms. Many of my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, witnessed an outpouring of spending by outside groups in this past election. Super PAC spending will increasingly target candidates of both parties, and I expect bipartisan support will grow at the same time.
3.) You say 'I've always been loathe to amend the constitution.' Could you say a little more on that?
Throughout my time in Congress, I have seen dozens of amendments proposed, most of which would do far more harm than good. It's difficult to amend the constitution, and appropriately so. Citizens deserve to have a government that is not beholden to, or compromised by special interests, and our current campaign finance system makes it hard for them to have that faith in our system.
Only for the most serious of threats to our country's ideals should we be willing to amend the constitution. The vast and now often anonymous expenditure of billions to influence out elections is the most serious threat to our democracy in a generation, and I believe we must consider an amendment.
4.) Can you think of a local example of how a lack of regulated campaign spending led to adverse consequences for the American public?
It is difficult to determine which elections may have been decided by large, late and anonymous spending -- and this is precisely the problem. Without transparency we may never fully know who is behind what and how much they have spent to bring about a particular result.
I recall one congressional race in Los Angeles some years ago, in which the tobacco industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last few weeks of the campaign and with a decisive impact. Two years later, that spending became an issue in his reelection, and he lost his seat. If the tobacco industry had been allowed to keep that late spending confidential even after the election, voters would have never known that the tobacco industry had picked its candidate and delivered victory.
This is not only an issue with candidates, but with ballot measures as well. A small handful of individual donors and special interest groups poured over $350 million to support or defeat propositions on California’s 2012 ballot. Ballot initiatives were originally meant to provide citizens a stronger voice in government but the irony is that today, very few initiatives are able to gather the required 504,760 signatures without support or sponsorship from big donors or special interest groups. Ballot initiatives have become extremely costly – from hiring professional signature gatherers to spending millions on ad campaigns – and are no longer within reach of ordinary citizens interested in “direct democracy.” In the past, we could learn who was funding a particular measure -- key information in determining how to vote. This may no longer be the case.
5.) Can you speak a bit more about how the topic of campaign finance reform first drew your attention, back in 2000?
I was elected in 2000, defeating an incumbent Congressman in what, at the time, was the most expensive race for a House seat in history. During that election, I saw a wave of outside money come in to try to influence the outcome of the election -- so-called soft money, that has now found its way to Super PACs and 501(c)4 issue advocacy campaigns -- spent on radio advertisements and TV advertisements bombarding the Los Angeles media market. I couldn't turn on my TV or listen to the radio in my car without hearing an advertisement attacking me or my opponent.
After experiencing that, campaign finance reform became a central issue for me. On my first day in Congress, I became a cosponsor of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold legislation.
It's my hope that my amendment will allow us to put in place commonsense reforms like that legislation once again.