When the Federal Election Commission asks for public comment on a new rule, lawyers and activist groups specializing in election law leave a handful of responses. But after another campaign season that featured an onslaught of spending by super PACs and dark money groups, a court decision that lifted limits on big donors and a “public listening tour” by one of the agency’s Democratic commissioners, the FEC’s latest rulemaking drew 32,000 public comments.
At issue is how the FEC should respond to the Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. The court’s ruling struck down the biennial aggregate limits on political giving, which capped the total amount of direct contributions an individual could make to parties, political action committees and candidates in an election cycle.
The decision eliminated one more provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act, enacted in response to fundraising scandals by President Richard Nixon’s re-election effort; rather than being capped at less than $150,000, a single wealthy donor can now give a more than $3.5 million directly political campaigns. The decision in McCutcheon led to a new twist in an old kind of money-raising vehicle, as joint fundraising committees — which normally would be formed to benefit two candidates, or a candidate and a party committee — took on ten or more beneficiaries while soliciting six-figure checks from donors.
Commissioner Ann M. Ravel, a Democratic appointee and currently the FEC’s chair, encouraged citizens to weigh in on the question of how the joint fundraising committees should be regulated. Ravel noted, for example, that even though such committees may take in six figure checks, campaign laws bar candidates from asking for checks so large.
Ravel and the other Democratic commissioners put broader questions to the public as well, including how to increase political transparency and curb corruption, pointing to the $4 billion spent in the 2014 elections, of which $700 million came from dark money groups that don’t disclose their donors. Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman, the previous chair, also supported public feedback, while underlining the First Amendment’s protection of campaign spending.
Though not the most-commented FEC document of all time (FEC staff thinks that distinction likely belongs to a 2003 rulemaking on political committee status, which drew over 100,000 comments), the new regulatory proposals drew comments from across the political spectrum. Among those who shared their views were former presidential candidate Ron Paul, James Bopp (who argued for the winning side in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United case), many campaign finance lawyers and ordinary citizens like Eric Albert, who wrote in favor of increased transparency:
If the wealthy, people, corporations, labor unions, etc. want to influence my vote, I demand that they be identified clearly to me so I may make a fully informed decision in whom I wish to vote for. Please require that all funding for ads and electioneering material on behalf of candidates be clearly identified by who paid for it. Money has no role in politics despite the Supreme Court’s contrary misguided interpretation, as this gives an unfair advantage to those who have money to spend.
Pro-reform groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause each organized letter writing campaigns that drew thousands and hundreds of comments respectively.
Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat who has pushed for more disclosure from politically active groups during her time as the FEC’s chair, wrote on Twitter that three quarters of all the comments were in support of increased regulation of money in politics.
Sunlight could not immediately verify that figure, though clearly not all of the commenters favor more regulation of the current system.
Norman Roberts wrote:
Please stop trying to stifle free speech. There is no difference in an opinion piece, whether in a newspaper, magazine, or on line as either a blog or YouTube short. By passing this REG you would be putting this country on a slippery slope of political repression of divergent opinion. This is clearly an attempt to surreptitiously encroach upon our First Amendment rights. Leave media alone! and keep the internet free.
Many of the anti-regulatory comments also reference the regulation of internet media by the agency.