The nation’s top election regulator advertised today’s rare, daylong public hearing as an opportunity to address a recent Supreme Court ruling that allowed people to contribute money to an unlimited number of federal politicians.
Instead, liberals and conservatives used the Federal Election Commission’s forum to argue for their pet political money agendas while routinely, if politely, talking past one another.
Big money has become “a source of cynicism for our elections," argued Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch project, who joined a host of other liberals and reformists in demanding that politically active groups be required to disclose their funders.
“We don't need less money in the political process, we need more,” said lawyer Dan Backer, who successfully represented plaintiff Shaun McCutcheon in the McCutcheon v. FEC case that was supposed to be the subject of today’s meeting.
Other conservatives and advocates of a laissez-faire campaign finance system expressed fear that the FEC’s three Democratic appointees will try to regulate political speech on the Internet and reveal the identities of donors to politically active nonprofit groups.
The forum, which began at 8:15 a.m. and lasted well into the afternoon, laid bare the vast divide in the public and on the commission between those who want more transparency and controls on political spending and those who believe spending money on behalf of political candidates is sacred free speech.
The absence of intense debate about the McCutcheon decision appeared to annoy Republican National Committee Chief Counsel John Phillippe Jr., who had been called to testify on the topic. Channeling 1992 Reform Party vice presidential candidate James Stockdale, he mused, "Who am I, and why are we here?"
FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, reveled in the hearing, which she called “historic.”
That's hardly surprising, as Ravel intends to spend this year speaking out about what she considers the "grave problem" of "politically active nonprofit organizations — many conservative, but some liberal — together fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars from donors who aren't publicly known.
Ravel is also looking to make the FEC less insular and esoteric, having already conducted wide-ranging public forums in Chicago, Denver and Atlanta.
The forum turned into a debate about the Supreme Court's seminal Citizens United v. FEC decision, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on advertisements that call for the election or defeat of candidates, nearly as much as the McCutcheon decision.
When speakers did address the McCutcheon decision, the issues that arose seemed comparatively small bore, such as tweaking rules governing contribution earmarks or joint fundraising.
In a rather meta twist, McCutcheon himself spoke most pointedly about the decision that bears his name.
“We can’t punish rich people just because they have money … we have the right to make reasonable contributions to as many people as we choose,” McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, told FEC commissioners.
The McCutcheon decision allowed citizens to make the maximum campaign contribution to as many candidates and political parties as they want. Such contributions were previously capped under the so-called “aggregate limit” rule.
Political contributions made after McCutcheon remain subject to standing federal disclosure rules, which generally require political committees to report the name, address, employer and occupation of donors who give more than $200 during an election cycle.
Today’s hearing alone was an achievement for the FEC, which has been rendered largely non-functional in recent years because of partisan bickering.
Ravel struck a deal last fall with Republican commissioners in which she agreed to create long-awaited agency rules addressing the Citizens United decision. In exchange, the agency's GOP commissioners agreed invite public comment on the McCutcheon decision, and conduct today's hearing on potential ways to regulate it.
Ravel's compromise angered some Democrats, who'd like to see the Citizens United decision overturned or watered down, not formally accepted by the FEC.
Whether today's hearing will change any of the commissioners' minds on campaign money issues great or small is unclear. Commissioners at least appeared ready to look for ways to work together despite ideological differences.
Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, told the Center for Public Integrity that while some election law issues raised are "clearly in Congress' court," not that of the FEC, "hopefully we will use today to see where we can find consensus on some issues before us."
Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman, meanwhile, said he'll "reserve judgment" on what actions, if any, today's hearing will prompt the commission to take. "I hope this starts the year off on good footing for us working together where we can," Goodman added.
But Commissioner Caroline Hunter, also a Republican, expressed frustration with the affair when describing spending money on politics as a right protected by the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment.
“A theme to me for the day is ‘it’s OK for some people to speak, but not others. It’s crazy to me, it’s favoring some speakers over others,” Hunter said.
Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who frequently took to Twitter during the hearing, has long advocated for strict rules limiting the influence of big money in politics and requiring comprehensive disclosure of contributions and expenditures.
"Public commenter rightly asks: Whose side are you/we on? Who will we stand up for?" Weintraub tweeted during a late morning period when the commission invited several students, businesspeople and other people never seen at FEC proceedings to offer testimony.
She later called the hearing a “landmark” affair that took advantage of the agency’s ability to “take the public’ temperature on issues like corruption and transparency in political spending.”
Among the hearing's more recognizable speakers were Don McGahn, a former FEC chairman who today represented the Koch brothers-connected Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce and Freedom Partners Action Fund; former FEC Chairman Dave Mason; former FEC Chairman Brad Smith; Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and 2014 New York gubernatorial candidate; Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters and former Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla.