In Break with Congressional Republicans, Statehouse Republicans Advance Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform

As the the 15th anniversary of the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act comes and goes this week, much-needed changes to the way we fund federal elections remain blocked by Republican leadership in the U.S. House and Senate.

By contrast, state governments from New Mexico to Mississippi and Florida to Ohio this year are continuing to work in a bipartisan fashion to address state election systems that favor wealthy donors at the expense of everyday voters — a trend reminiscent of past state legislative sessions.

Bolstered by overwhelmingly public support across the political spectrum — including among Trump voters — calls for reform at all levels of government have intensified in the years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v FEC (2010) paved the way for corporations, unions and large individual donors to spend unlimited sums of money influencing elections. The public remains in the dark about the direct source of these funds because Republicans in Congress have blocked more robust disclosure. Last November, voters around the country ushered in a number of democracy reforms by the ballot including in Republican strongholds like Missouri and South Dakota.

Statehouse Republicans’ responsiveness to the views of their constituents on this issue highlights the growing disconnect between voters and Republican state legislators and their congressional leaders who have simply ignored the will of their voters and at times actively worked against it.

  • In Vermont, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation creating a state ethics commission, banning campaign contributions from those doing business with the state, and requiring public officials to wait one year after leaving office before becoming lobbyists.
  • The New Mexico legislature passed a bill, co-sponsored by a Republican representative and a Democratic senator and passed by members of both parties, to require independent-expenditure groups to report their political backers passed. Sadly, Governor Susana Martinez defied the will of the voters and members of her own party by vetoing this bill.
  • The Mississippi legislature passed a bipartisan bill that would restrict politicians’ spending campaign money on personal expenses and provide for some enforcement and oversight by the state Ethics Commission. Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign the bill into law.
  • In Ohio, the senate passed a bill to increase online transparency for campaign finance reports with strong bipartisan support. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has for years blocked the senate from requiring e-filing of campaign finance reports.
  • In Illinois, the senate passed a bipartisan bill to establish a public matching program for small dollar donations to candidate candidates and a bipartisan bill that would require donor disclosure for outside groups spending in state elections easily cleared a committee vote.
  • In North Dakota, the House passed a bipartisan bill to “expand what candidates have to report to the Secretary of State to include campaign expenditures and the amount of contributions.”
  • In New Hampshire, Republican senators joined Democrats to pass a bill that would subject independent-expenditure groups to expenditure and contribution disclosure requirements. The bill is now in the House Election Law Committee. The city of Portsmouth, NH is looking at a similar proposal for city elections.
  • In Missouri, a strong bi-partisan coalition of senators passed a resolution calling for an Article V Convention to propose a constitutional amendment that would allow common-sense limits on campaign spending and donations. And several Republicans are leading an effort to require all political groups to disclose their donors.
  • In Florida, a Republican representative and a Republican senator have introduced companion bills to increase transparency by prohibiting one political committee from donating money to another political committee. The Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida is supporting the legislation.
  • In Maryland, Republican Senator Simonaire sponsored a bill to prohibit foreign-owned companies from donating to ballot committees. The bill passed unanimously. A handful of Republicans also joined Democrats in passing a bill that closed loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws to create stronger firewalls and protections around third party spenders, such as Super PACs. And at least one Republican candidate for Montgomery County Council intends to use the county’s new public financing of elections program.
  • In South Carolina, the Republican Senate President, Hugh Leatherman, advanced a bill to require political groups to list the names, addresses and employers of donors who give at least $1,000 to a candidate. Koch-funded groups helped kill the bill in committee.
  • Republican leaders in Texas had previously put their weight behind a measure to increase disclosure for outside group spending but opted to keep it out of this year’s ethics reform bill. The bill that passed the senate this year would implement a cooling-off period before former elected officials could become lobbyists and increase reporting requirements for lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The House unanimously approved some ethics reforms. Some Republicans also support a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to propose an amendment overturning Citizens United.
  • In Maine, a Republican representative is cosponsoring legislation to ban lobbyists from contributing to candidate campaigns or PACs run by elected officials.
  • In West Virginia, Republican Senator Takubo supported an amendment to require donor disclosure for outside groups. The amendment was voted down.

In other states, Democrats are moving reform, especially on donor disclosure, with the potential to attract Republican support — including in California (a similar bill last session had bipartisan support), Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Nevada. Several bills, including public financing of elections, are also moving in D.C.

As Senator McCain said on the senate floor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2004, “Ongoing reform efforts are needed not only at the Federal level but also at the State level. Working at the State level, we can help to restore faith in the political process by improving contribution disclosure laws, promoting clean election programs, and encouraging an independent and noncorrupt campaign finance system… This is not a partisan issue. It should not advantage one party over the other. What reform does is create transparency, equality, and participation, and inspire confidence in those we represent.”

The same is still true today whether Republican leaders in Congress are willing to admit it or not.

P.S. The last election cycle there was a small uptick in the number of Republicans in Congress expressing concern about money in politics. During a debate, Trey Gowdy (SC-04) said, “I don’t agree with the holding in Citizens United.” John Katko (NY-24) also addressed Citizens United during debates and went one step further to endorse a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. Scott Perry (PA-04) endorsed a suite of solutions from a constitutional amendment to better disclosure, including through the IRS and SEC. Andrew Harris (MD-01) also endorsed increased disclosure. Walter Jones (NC-03) has long been a Republican supporter of money in politics reforms. Marsha Blackburn (TN-07) in an interview with NPR said, “what you do need to do is get some of the money out of politics.” And John McCain (AZ) has also continued to criticize the current system, but has done nothing to help fix it.