Campaign finance reform is back on the political agenda.
The issue largely receded to the back burner after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowed super PACs to receive unlimited donations from corporations and unions.
But the nascent presidential campaign season is changing that. Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton lamented the amount of money that can influence elections during a recent stump speech. Pressed at town halls, potential Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham have offered their own solutions. And just for good measure, a Florida mailman landed a gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to bring attention to the cause.
The developments are raising hopes among activists that campaign finance will be a major issue in the election.
“2016 will be a watershed election,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the pro-reform group Public Citizen, pointing to Graham and Clinton endorsing a constitutional amendment.
Still, changing campaign finance rules will be tough.
Barack Obama, now in office for more than six years, has disappointed those looking to change the system. Congress isn’t moving on any campaign finance legislation. And thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions, donors have more vehicles than ever to influence the political process.
The 2012 elections gave birth to super PACs and featured the most expensive presidential election in history. The midterm races spawned new political nonprofit groups that could shield the names of their donors have given reclusive backers a more discreet way to spend money. During that cycle, Harvard professor Larry Lessig tried to reduce this growing role of money in politics that cycle by starting his own super PAC. Nearly all of his backed candidates lost.
And now heading into 2016, these groups are taking center stage.
With campaign finance moving higher on the political agenda heading into 2016, activists are debating how boldly they should move.
Some worry that old-fashioned stunts that delight outsiders – such as the gyrocopter landing – imperil their cause.
“Stunts like that are not helpful because it’s a serious subject,” said Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chair, who said he could nonetheless sympathize with the pilot’s frustration. “The guy who’s doing that is reflecting the enormous sense of frustration that no one is listening to the average citizen.”
But Holman thinks the outside agitators and inside elbow-greasers on Capitol Hill can work together to push it to the top of the political agenda.
“We’re going to see quite a bit of guerrilla theater – a growing amount of it – entering the 2016 election,” Holman said. “Having a gyrocopter land on the Capitol, or the protestors in the Supreme Court, just shows the anger.”
Disruption and gimmicks have long been a part of the campaign finance playbook: An 88-year-old woman, Doris “Granny D” Haddock, spent 1999 walking from Los Angeles to Washington to raise awareness of the issue. Last year, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, a protestor interrupted proceedings for the first time since 1983 and was arrested.
Now, a group inspired by “Granny D” is looking to fuse together the outsider’s penchant for rabble-rousing and the insider’s understanding of the premier venue in New Hampshire politics: the town hall meeting. New Hampshire Rebellion, founded last year by campaign finance reform advocates, is organizing 500 volunteers in the Granite State to ask candidates on video what legislation they would support if they won the White House, just as Graham and Christie answered.
They’re using their feet as well, marching like ‘Granny D” to the New Hampshire GOP’s summit this past weekend in Nashua where the entire potential Republican field tested their messages on political diehards.
“Outside tactics will create the final environment that the inside game can take place,” said Dan Weeks, the head of the group.
This latest strand of optimism, though, is just a false hope in professional reformers’ “endless fantasy,” said Bradley Smith, a former chair of the Federal Elections Commission who supports relaxing campaign finance regulations.
“It’s like watching Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football,” Smith said, recalling the energy that fizzled when “Granny D” trotted across the country. “I’ve seen this before.”
CORRECTION: An original version of this story misstated the number of candidates backed by Larry Lessig who lost.