Hillary Clinton, who has raised almost $47 million for her presidential campaign, has set her sights on reducing the influence of money in politics, with a special focus on limiting the impact of the Supreme Court’s now-infamous Citizens United decision.
Clinton does not like Citizens United, but she also likely loathes the group behind the decision. Citizens United is, after all, actually all about Clinton.
In 2008, a nonprofit corporation called Citizens United made a 90-minute film entitled, “Hillary: The Movie,” which it wanted to air on video-on-demand. The film has been described as a political documentary, but it was essentially a hit piece against the candidate. Think of the film as a very long political commercial urging people not to vote for Clinton.
After the government blocked Citizens United’s efforts to promote the movie, in part by insisting that Citizens United follow disclosure and disclaimer provisions applicable to political advertisements, the group sued the government and argued its case twice before the Supreme Court.
By now most people know about the court’s 2010 decision in which it held that that all “people” – whether they are individuals or corporations – have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums of money to elect or defeat candidates. That decision essentially unleashed what amounts to a Category 5 hurricane of money on an already-soaked political system.
Current presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle have used Citizens United as a rallying cry to call for reform, but the Democrats are certainly screaming the loudest. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has gained traction by explaining the dangerous consequences of the decision and calling for reform. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is running on a platform largely dedicated to changing the way we fund political campaigns.
So it may be no surprise that as Sanders continues to rise in the polls and Lessig has raised $1 million for his campaign, Clinton announced a campaign finance reform plan this month aimed at reducing the influence of money in political campaigns.
Clinton has said she would use Citizens United as a litmus test when appointing Supreme Court justices, and would only appoint those in favor of overturning the decision. She has also said that she would consider the idea of a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. This is a politically popular talking point but one unlikely to come to fruition.
A constitutional amendment is really the nuclear option and crafting one that promotes the government goals of promoting the integrity of the electoral processes while not infringing on speech rights is no easy task. Clinton, a lawyer, knows this.
Clinton also said she wants to increase transparency of elections by requiring that publicly traded corporations disclose their political donations. Most of the realistic calls for reform in the campaign finance arena focus on disclosure and transparency proposals. Clinton’s support of such proposals could lead to a change in behavior, if not a short-term change in the law.
The final piece of Clinton’s proposal is to expand the federal public campaign financing program. Clinton is advocating for a matching funds program in which candidates raise small donations and in exchange for agreeing to certain spending limits, obtain financing from the government to run their campaigns.
While these programs can serve many important purposes like reducing the amount of time candidates must spend fundraising, when push comes to shove and the voters are deciding how they want to spend their tax dollars, the public often has little appetite for them.
Clinton’s proposals make for good fodder on the campaign trail, and some should be taken seriously. But it is a sad irony that she has had to raise and benefit from millions of dollars in campaign funding to be heard talking about the need for campaign finance reform.
Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu. Follow her on Twitter @LevinsonJessica.