Leading 2020 Democrats want to get money out of politics — here’s how they plan to do it

The three Democratic frontrunners each say they want to radically change the current campaign finance system.

SOURCEOpen Secrets

Following Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) plan to bar corporate money from federal politics, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) each proposed overhauls to federal election rules early this week ahead of the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night.

The three Democratic frontrunners each say they want to radically change the current campaign finance system. The proposals come as Democrats increasingly run on the popular message of getting big money out of politics.

The candidates’ plans share common ground on implementing stricter contribution limits, steering toward a publicly financed election system and pulling off the improbable feat of repealing Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark Supreme Court case that allowed for unlimited independent expenditures on federal elections. 

What do they agree on?

Each of the leading candidates agree on reducing the influence of corporate money in federal elections. Both Warren and Biden proposed a sweeping ban on corporate PAC giving to campaigns and party conventions, whereas Sanders primarily focused on keeping corporate money out of party conventions and inaugural committees.

The candidates also want to limit the influence of wealthy donors on federal elections. While Warren and Sanders have long taken pride in their commitments to running grassroots campaigns attracting small-dollar donors, Biden is backed by a pool of high-dollar fundraisers. However, Biden is the only candidate who proposed to rid the federal election system of private dollars with a public financing system. 

Warren wants to establish a public funding system giving a 6-1 match to every contribution under $200, whereas Sanders’ plan would set up a mandatory public finance system for national party conventions. 

The candidates all put forward plans to either strengthen or replace the Federal Election Commission, which is currently paralyzed due to lack of a quorum. While Warren wants to reduce the number of commissioners to five and expand the commission’s power, both Biden and Sanders recommend replacing the agency altogether. Biden proposes a five-member commission overseen by an 11-member oversight board, whereas Sanders envisions a three-member commission with a background in law or ethics enforcement. 

The three front-runners also hope to overturn Citizens United and further regulate coordination between super PACs and candidates, which is supposed to be forbidden. Sanders pledged to support a constitutional amendment stating that money is not speech, which is likely to be met with court challenges. 

While the presidential contenders’ plans are ambitious and unlikely, campaign finance reform groups see the fleshed out proposals as a positive sign.

“It’s such a welcome development that top candidates … are focusing on fixing the democratic process,” said Adav Noti, senior director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “That hasn’t happened in decades, and it’s not just lip service. Top candidates are putting out detailed plans, committing themselves in writing to taking these steps if they get elected.”

Biden, who is often described by political analysts as the moderate and safe candidate in a field of trailblazers, proposed an aggressive campaign finance overhaul. The former vice president called for a constitutional amendment to eliminate private funding of federal elections and move to a system where campaigns are solely funded with public dollars. 

“This amendment will do far more than just overturn Citizens United:  it will return our democracy to the people and away from the corporate interests that seek to distort it,” Biden’s campaign wrote in the proposal.

Candidates who outraise their opponents win more often than not. Election spending is always increasing, culminating with a midterm-record $5.7 billion spent during the 2018 cycle. Biden’s proposal — extremely unlikely to pass as it is — would throw the current system out. 

Biden proposed legislation to match public funds for candidates receiving small-dollar contributions while the constitutional amendment is considered. He also urged legislation to ensure super PAC independence and require real-time donor disclosure from federal campaigns and outside groups airing ads within 60 days of an election. 

The former vice president proposed to ban political spending by dark money groups, which would likely be met with court challenges over the First Amendment, Noti said. 

Biden would establish a new agency, the Commission on Federal Ethics, to enforce all campaign finance and corruption laws, effectively doing away with the FEC. 

If Biden’s plan to combat big money comes off as surprising due to his reliance on wealthy donors, Warren’s is right in line with her campaign’s grassroots-focused message. 

Warren unveiled an anti-corruption plan in September, which included bans on foreign lobbying and elected-official-turned-lobbyists, expansion of financial conflict of interest laws and stronger disclosure rules for lobbyists and government officials. 

Warren released another plan on campaign finance reform Tuesday morning, in which she reiterated her pledge against money from federal lobbyists and PACs and proposed several policies in addition to her September plan. The new plan, titled “Getting Big Money out of Politics,” aims to end the practices of corporate PAC contributions, lobbyist bundling and foreign corporate spending in U.S. elections. 

The plan doesn’t aim to eliminate private funding of campaigns, instead establishing a public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions 6 to 1 while lowering campaign contribution limits. 

The Massachusetts senator said she would increase oversight of outside groups, barring anyone with a close connection to a candidate from running a super PAC backing that candidate, and barring subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations from contributing to super PACs. Warren’s plan also attempts to shine a light on dark money contributions to outside groups, which totaled $176 million during last year’s midterms. 

Warren also called for disclosure of bundlers — elite fundraisers who solicit contributions to a candidate from wealthy friends, business associates and other contacts — among her numerous proposals. 

“The system of money for influence is helped, at every stage, by secrecy,” Warren’s campaign wrote. “Presidential campaigns keep secret whole systems of recognition and special access events.”

Just two presidential candidates have disclosed information about their bundlers. Warren and Sanders, who have both rejected big-dollar fundraisers, say they do not have bundler programs. 

Sanders’ upstart 2016 campaign was powered by small donors and a message of rejecting big money. The Vermont senator was the first of the leading 2020 candidates to release a plan to combat big money in politics, though his plan is not as comprehensive as Biden’s or Warren’s.

In attempting to state that money is not speech, Sanders’ plan would aim to overturn both Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruling that set the precedent that direct contributions to candidates can be limited but independent political spending by individuals or groups cannot be. Sanders would attempt to end political spending by super PACs and dark money groups, and replace the FEC with the Federal Election Administration, which Sanders dubbed a “true law enforcement agency” that can impose civil and criminal penalties. 

Sanders would aim to pass public financing laws for federal elections, introducing publicly financed vouchers that would allow any voting-age American to donate to candidates. Like Biden and Warren, he would also mandate public funding for national party conventions. 

The leading 2020 Democrats haven’t provided details about how they would pass their plans to overhaul campaign finance rules. Congressional Republicans have long opposed stricter campaign finance laws that they believe restrict or chill free speech. House Democrats passed an omnibus bill to overhaul election, campaign finance and ethics rules this year, but the bill has not received a vote in the Republican-held Senate. 


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