Citizens United, Foreign Money, and Your Voice

“Foreign Currency and Coins” by Philip Brewer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

UPDATE (Sept. 16, 2016): More than 2,000 individuals submitted comments expressing their serious concerns about foreign spending to influence our elections. Although a majority of the Commission could not agree to move forward on this proposal, please know that your voice was heard, and that it mattered. All of my colleagues on the Commission know that you consider this a very important issue. During my comments in the open meeting of the Commission, I discussed many of the comments you sent. I will continue to do my part to best protect the integrity of our elections. Thank you for doing your part, too — and for staying engaged.

UPDATE (Sept. 6, 2016): If you would like to submit a comment, please do so before Sept. 15. A new email address has been established to facilitate receipt of comments for the public record about this proposal: PublicComment@fec.gov. Comments previously sent to CommissionerRavel@fec.gov have been accepted for the public record and will be reviewed.

Rep. Robert Brady, Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration, has submitted a comment, which you may read here. Expressing his agreement with the proposal and the issue’s “immediate importance,” Rep. Brady wrote that a public comment period “will serve to highlight the grave risks of foreign interests seeking to influence our elections, a danger that was of less pressing concern prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United when the FEC decided Advisory Opinion 2006–15.”

There are serious concerns about how foreign money may influence elections in the United States, at the federal, state and local level. My fellow commissioners at the Federal Election Commission should share those concerns. And I suspect many Americans feel the same way, too. That’s why I would like to hear directly from you before the FEC meeting on September 15 where this will be discussed. After you read this, send me your thoughts by emailing PublicComment@fec.gov.* The FEC’s job, because we exist in the public interest, is to hear from the public.

Campaign finance laws have long guarded against foreign spending in our elections to protect the integrity of our representative government. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United transformed our campaign finance system and opened up new avenues for outside and corporate spending in elections, so the issue has become more significant.

“Unlike voters in U.S. elections, corporations may be foreign controlled,” Justice Stevens wrote in his dissent, and Citizens United “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.”

The prohibition on foreign campaign spending remains on the books. But with Citizens United, our campaign finance system is vulnerable to influence from foreign nationals and foreign corporations through domestic subsidiaries and affiliates in ways unimaginable a decade ago. We already know that much of the new outside spending comes from undisclosed, dark money sources. We must ensure that foreign corporations and foreign nationals do not influence our elections by funneling funds through their U.S.-based subsidiaries.

Here’s where you come in.

One of the FEC’s responsibilities is to issue “advisory opinions.” An advisory opinion is an official response from the Commission concerning how federal campaign finance law applies to a specific factual situation. Years before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United and before I was appointed to the Commission, the FEC issued an advisory opinion about political spending by the domestic subsidiary of a foreign corporation. Specifically, Advisory Opinion 2006–15 (TransCanada). It’s my view that Citizens United may have changed some of the assumptions underlying that opinion from 2006.

Earlier this summer, I proposed that the Commission rescind that advisory opinion and the parts of others that purported to permit domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations to make contributions or donations, either directly or through their PACs, in connection with federal, state, and local elections.

My proposal would clarify the current state of the law regarding how federal law still prohibits election spending by foreign nationals, including foreign corporations. Others have shared my concern, including experts such as Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Prof. John Coates of Harvard Law School, and Prof. Robert Jackson of Columbia Law School, who spoke at an FEC convening earlier this year.

I believe that the public should weigh-in on this issue, so I’m seeking comment on my proposal. Comments may be submitted by email to PublicComment@fec.gov.* The Commission will discuss this issue, informed by your comments, at the next Open Meeting of the FEC, which will take place on September 15.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this important topic.

Ann M. Ravel has served on the Federal Election Commission since 2013 and chaired the Commission in 2015.

* A previous version of this article directed readers to send their comments to CommissionerRavel@fec.gov. All comments that were sent to that email address have been accepted for the public record and will be reviewed.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.