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Hillary Clinton releases plan to tackle campaign finance excesses

Clinton calls for more disclosure and overturning Citizens United; critics want to know how reforms would be enforced

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday released a set of proposals (PDF) that her campaign says are intended to regulate the nation’s increasingly lax campaign finance system, spotlighting the outsize influence of money in U.S. politics.

In addition to calling for a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC — the landmark 2010 ruling that opened the floodgates for outside groups to spend unlimited, unregulated sums on elections — she said she would push for federal legislation that would compel such groups to disclose their biggest donors, establish a public campaign financing system that would match the contributions of small donors, and push for a Securities and Exchange Commission rule that would require publicly traded corporations to disclose political spending to shareholders.

"We have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political system and drowning out the voices of too many everyday Americans,” Clinton said in a statement. “Our democracy should be about expanding the franchise, not charging an entrance fee. It starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and continues with structural reform to our campaign finance system so there’s real sunshine and increased participation.”

The proposals come as her rivals for the Democratic nomination have made campaign finance reform a central tenet of their campaigns. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders frequently invokes the issue on the campaign trail and lambasts billionaire conservative donors Charles Koch and David Koch. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who is set to officially announce his bid for the Democratic nomination Wednesday, has said he is running solely to reform the way U.S. campaigns are funded.  

David Donnelly, the president and CEO of Every Voice, a campaign finance reform group, praised Clinton’s plan, noting it was as comprehensive and bold on the issue as the proposals he has seen from any presidential candidate.

“These proposals get us 90 percent to 95 percent there to address the issue of money in our elections,” he said, adding that the additional 5 to 10 percent comes down to enforcing the rules. “It’s something that looks a lot like the fighting Big Money agenda that more than a dozen reform groups have gotten behind. It looks very much like what we’re proposing as an overhaul of the campaign finance system.”

Donnelly in particular praised Clinton’s support of public financing, which would match small donors’ contributions with matching funds and lower the contribution limits of individual donors — a system that would rein in the influence of big donors and give more power to smaller contributors.

Others, however, said she has to do more to demonstrate how she would enact such proposals once in office — especially if the GOP, which generally opposes campaign finance restrictions, remains in control of Congress after 2016.

Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance lawyer and the president of Democracy 21, another campaign finance watchdog group, said in a statement that he would like to see Clinton propose mechanisms to enforce new and existing campaign finance laws, including fixing or replacing the Federal Election Commission or strengthening the Justice Department’s oversight role.

“Much needs to be done to move from a proposal to fundamental change in our political system. Commitments to pursue major campaign finance reforms have been made by previous presidential candidates and then ignored once they were elected president,” he said. “In the end, the ultimate test on campaign finance issues for any officeholder is the specific steps they are prepared to take to promote the reforms they support in order to fix our corrupt campaign finance system.”

Spending on federal elections has exploded in recent years, particularly by outside groups, which do not have to play by the same campaign finance rules as candidates or their official committees. In the 2008 presidential and congressional elections, $143.6 million was spent by such groups, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2012 elections, outside spending crossed the $1 billion threshold.

Some have said Clinton is an odd fit to champion aggressive campaign finance reform, given that she has exploited the nation’s lax campaign finance laws as much any other candidate. The super PAC supporting her presidential campaign, Priorities USA Action, has raised $15.6 million in support of her bid, large chunks of it from undisclosed donors — this despite calls for the candidate to return the money or disclose the donors. “We’re going to have to do what we can in this election to make sure that we’re not swamped by money on the other side,” she said in July.

Other candidates, like Sanders, have refused to take money from super PACs and other outside groups altogether, relying on a grass-roots funding effort powered by small donors instead.

Donnelly, however, said that he found the charges of hypocrisy far-fetched.

“Those candidates that are competing in the current system have to play under the rules as they are rather than the rules as they should be,” he said. “Hillary Clinton has chosen to come out with a serious plan to address a major problem that every voter and every candidate knows exists, and the alternative is to basically clam up and not talk about it and accept the way things are.”

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