How PBS Can Continue Explaining The Crisis Of Money In Politics During Thursday's Democratic Debate

Across all nightly network broadcasts, PBS has consistently provided the most coverage of the crisis of money in politics and campaign finance reform over the last 16 months. During Thursday night's debate, PBS can continue its much-needed emphasis on the issue by asking the candidates what steps they will take to address money in politics if elected president.

PBS Will Host The February 11, 2016, Democratic Primary Debate

PBS NewsHour Hosts Gwen Ifill And Judy Woodruff Will Moderate The Debate. PBS will produce the Democratic debate in conjunction with WETA Washington, D.C. PBS NewsHour hosts Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff will moderate the Democratic National Committee-sanctioned debate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. [, 1/11/15]

PBS Outperforms All Nightly Network News Outlets On Coverage Of Money In Politics

CBS And PBS Led Networks In Time Spent Covering Campaign Finance Reform. According to a Media Matters analysis, CBS and PBS spent substantially more time discussing campaign finance reform than ABC and NBC between September 15, 2014, and January 15, 2016. PBS aired 21 segments on PBS NewsHour that referenced the subject, totaling nearly three hours. CBS aired 26 segments referencing the issue on CBS Evening News and Face the Nation, totaling just over 2 hours and 20 minutes.

[Media Matters, 1/21/16]

Three Questions On Campaign Finance Reform PBS Should Ask The Candidates During The Debate

1) Will You Take Executive Action Requiring Federal Contractors To Disclose Campaign Gifts?

President Obama Has Considered An Executive Order Requiring Contractors To Disclose Political Donations. According to The New York Times, President Obama is considering taking executive action to require government contractors to disclose political spending in order to curb the potential for “pay-to-play” scenarios in which contributions result in politicians favoring certain contractors.

President Obama is seriously considering an executive order that would require companies doing business with the federal government to disclose their political contributions, White House officials said on Tuesday, a step long awaited by activists to reduce the influence of secretive corporate donations in elections.

The directive, known as the “dark money” executive order, would mandate that government contractors publicly report their contributions to groups that spend money to influence campaigns. Advocates inside and outside the White House believe the executive order would prompt some companies to spend less, by exposing their donations to public scrutiny.

Mr. Obama has been considering the action for more than a year, but discussions have intensified in recent weeks, according to activists and administration officials, as the president moves to deliver on unfulfilled promises in his final year in office. [The New York Times, 1/19/16]

Brennan Center For Justice: “A New Executive Order Requiring Disclosure Of Dark Money Spending By Contractors Would Help Citizens Hold Their Elected Representatives Accountable.” According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, an executive order requiring disclosure of political spending by government contractors would be a strong first step in regulating money in politics:

The need for robust disclosure of election spending by government contractors has only increased since 2011. Outside spending in federal elections has continued to skyrocket, sometimes dwarfing both candidate and party spending. More and more of that spending is dark. For example, spending by dark money groups in Senate elections more than doubled between 2010 and 2014. In 10 of the races rated most competitive before the election, almost 60 percent of outside spending came from such groups, and that money went overwhelmingly to support the winning candidates.

An increasing number of dark money groups, moreover, appear to have been formed to back a single candidate. By giving to these groups, donors can target particular races in exactly the same way as with direct contributions to candidates -- only with no limits and in secret. The increased risk of corruption emanating from such secret contributions is obvious.

A new Executive Order requiring disclosure of dark money spending by contractors would help citizens hold their elected representatives accountable, strengthen confidence in government, and safeguard taxpayer dollars. This is an easy opportunity for the President to improve our politics and secure a lasting legacy. [The Brennan Center, accessed 2/8/16]

2) Will You Push The Securities And Exchange Commission (SEC) To Begin Planning Rules That Would Require Publicly Traded Companies To Disclose Political Spending?

The Recent Government Funding Bill Bars The SEC From Ordering Publicly Traded Companies To Disclose Political Donations. According to The Hill, a rider to the December 2015 government spending bill blocked the SEC from requiring publicly traded companies to disclose donations to campaigns and other political spending:

The government funding bill released early Wednesday includes language that bars the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from forcing publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending.

“None of the funds made available by any division of this act shall be used by the SEC to finalize, issue or implement any rule, regulation or order regarding the disclosure of political contributions, contributions to tax exempt organizations or dues paid to trade associations,” the bill says.

Advocates of financial reform have been pushing the agency to issue a formal rule since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates on unlimited and unchecked corporate spending on political communication and campaign advertisements.

The SEC has reportedly received more than 1.2 million public comments in favor of political spending disclosures. [The Hill, 12/16/15]

USA Today: Despite Funding Bill Setback, SEC Can Still Start The Long Process Of Planning Corporate Disclosure Procedures. USA Today reported that while advocates for campaign finance reform were disappointed by the rider blocking the SEC from forcing publicly traded companies to disclose political spending, experts said the bill does not prevent planning for an eventual disclosure rule and noted that implementing one would likely take years:

But the wording of the law does not prohibit the SEC from going ahead with the long rulemaking process anyway, according to 94 Democratic lawmakers who sent a letter to SEC Chair Mary Jo White last week, backed up by a legal opinion from a Harvard professor.

“This provision does not bar the SEC from discussing, planning, investigating, or developing plans or possible proposals for a rule or regulation relating to disclosure of political contributions,” said the letter, signed by Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with 26 other senators and 66 representatives.


“Since Citizens United, investor demand [for disclosure] has greatly -- and justifiably -- intensified, as the magnitude of the problem and the potential for abuse has skyrocketed,” the letter said.

The prohibition on using SEC funds “to finalize, issue or implement any rule, regulation, or order regarding the disclosure of political contributions” ends with fiscal year 2016, on Sept. 30.

The legal opinion written by Harvard Law Professor John Coates argues that this wording does not in the meantime restrict the preparatory tasks of issuing a rule -- internal discussion, planning, investigation, analysis, evaluation and development of possible proposals.

“These steps often take years and consume significant agency funds and other resources,” Coates wrote in his Dec. 17 opinion.

If the rider had really wanted to block work on the rule altogether, it would have used much broader language, such as “plan, propose, finalize, issue or implement,” he said.

In fact, the shortcomings of the rider may give lawmakers new leverage to goad the SEC into action on a political disclosure rule. [USA Today, 12/29/15]

3) The Federal Election Commission (FEC) Chairwoman Has Said The Commission Is “Worse Than Dysfunctional.” What Will You Do To Break The Gridlock At The FEC?

FEC Chairwoman: “People Think The F.E.C. Is Dysfunctional. It's Worse Than Dysfunctional.” FEC chairwoman Ann M. Ravel told The New York Times the commission is “worse than dysfunctional” due to partisan gridlock on the six-person commission, which has prevented the political spending watchdog from providing oversight during recent and current campaigns:

The leader of the Federal Election Commission, the agency charged with regulating the way political money is raised and spent, says she has largely given up hope of reining in abuses in the 2016 presidential campaign, which could generate a record $10 billion in spending.

“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I'm not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It's worse than dysfunctional.”

Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency's six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate.

Some commissioners are barely on speaking terms, cross-aisle negotiations are infrequent, and with no consensus on which rules to enforce, the caseload against violators has plummeted.

The F.E.C.'s paralysis comes at a particularly critical time because of the sea change brought about by the Supreme Court's decision in 2010 in the Citizens United case, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds in support of political candidates. Billionaire donors and “super PACs” are already gaining an outsize role in the 2016 campaign, and the lines have become increasingly stretched and blurred over what presidential candidates and political groups are allowed to do. [The New York Times, 5/2/15]

Deadlocked Decisions At The FEC Have Increased “14-Fold” Since 2008. According The Huffington Post, the appointment of conservative commissioners “dedicated to preventing enforcement” has caused the commission to become completely gridlocked along party lines:

The FEC was not always broken. In fact, it worked quite well through most of its history. Everything changed in 2008, the year that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) realized he could gut campaign finance laws by selecting three Republican commissioners dedicated to preventing enforcement. On the six-member commission - three Democrats and three Republicans - decisions can be made only by a majority. Deadlocking at 3-to-3 means that no decision will be made and no enforcement action will be pursued.

Prior to 2008, the FEC on average voted on 727 enforcement actions a year and deadlocked on only 1.1 percent of those actions. Ever since 2008, on the other hand, the agency on average has voted on only 178 enforcement actions per year and deadlocked on 15.7 percent of those votes - more than a 14-fold increase in deadlocked votes on just a fraction of its previous enforcement decisions. [The Huffington Post, 5/20/15]