Money and Democracy

Published — December 10, 2015

Campaign finance reform measure: ‘a solution in search of a problem’?

Proposal could affect how Sanders, O’Malley, Huckabee raise money online


You probably don’t give much thought to the three-digit code on the back of your credit card. But a small, bipartisan group of lawmakers thinks political campaigns should be paying a lot more attention to them — in order to keep illicit money from coming into U.S. elections.

Those digits are the focus of a new bill called the “Stop Foreign Donations Affecting Our Elections Act.” The legislation’s main sponsor is Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus who gained notoriety for boycotting Pope Francis’s address to Congress in September.

Supporters of the legislation say that without the additional verification, foreigners — or others with designs on using fraudulent credit cards — could hypothetically funnel money to political candidates.

“A loophole exists in the current disclosure requirement for online donations that makes it relatively easy for bad actors to circumvent federal contribution levels,” Gosar said during a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill, adding that his new bill would “prohibit foreign nationals from cheating the system.”

Most political observers say there hasn’t been widespread evidence of such abuse.

“It is illegal for foreigners to contribute no matter what method they use,” said Ken Gross, a former associate general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “Is there some evidence that credit cards are being used to get around that restriction? I have not heard of that.”

In 2008 and 2012, Republicans accused President Barack Obama’s campaign of taking foreign money through credit card contributions, but the FEC ultimately dismissed the allegations.

Whatever the risk, many campaigns do require credit card verification when they solicit online donations. Many, but not all.

Among Democratic presidential contenders, only the party’s frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, currently requires this type of verification. Neither of her main rivals, Bernie Sanders nor Martin O’Malley, does.

Nor does former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who briefly sought the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and is now considering a 2016 bid as an independent.

Among Republican presidential contenders, it’s a different story.

Only Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, does not already require this information from online donors, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of candidates’ websites.

“There is no reason for a well-funded campaign not to have those safeguards,” said Cleta Mitchell, a Republican campaign finance lawyer.

Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders, said that the campaign uses the online platform from Democratic fundraising powerhouse ActBlue. He dismissed Gosar’s bill as “a solution in search of a problem.”

Like Sanders, Webb also relies on an outside vendor, said Webb campaign spokesman Craig Crawford.

“We are in the midst of switching companies, so we’ll raise this issue with them for discussion,” Crawford said.

Neither representatives of ActBlue nor the campaigns of Huckabee or O’Malley responded to requests for comment.

Gosar’s bill — which is currently co-sponsored by 21 Republicans and two Democrats — comes at a time when campaign finance regulations have become increasingly controversial and increasingly partisan in Washington.

Democrats have vigorously pushed for new rules and stricter regulations in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which helped usher in the era of super PACs and “dark money” nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their funders. Many Republicans, meanwhile, have called for a loosening of campaign finance rules — including lifting current caps on how much political parties can coordinate their spending with candidates.

Backers of Gosar’s bill hope to kick-start a new, bipartisan conversation.

“This is a good bill to get the debate about reform started,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a co-sponsor of the bill who is a rarity among Republicans in that he also wants to overturn Citizens United and to adopt public financing for elections.

Jones’ sentiment was echoed by John Pudner, the executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group that worked with Gosar to draft the legislation.

“I am hoping this is a first step,” said Pudner. “Let’s look at other ways ‘dark money’ can get in. We don’t want our government being bought and influenced.”

This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America.

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