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A political action committee focused on controlling the influence of money in politics is targeting Republican incumbent lawmakers in the 2018 midterm elections with a message emphasizing the threat of foreign campaign money.
The PAC, called End Citizens United, is sponsoring ads and calling on supporters to pressure eight House Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to co-sponsor a new, Democrat-backed bill ( H.R. 1615) authored by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). The bill would prohibit outside campaign spending groups from receiving contributions from corporations owned or controlled by foreigners.
Ryan’s office didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ended a decades-old prohibition on direct corporate spending to influence elections. Critics said the ruling opened a loophole for foreign money to be funneled through corporations into U.S. elections despite a long-standing ban on foreign campaign money.
The End Citizens United PAC raised more than $25.4 million in the 2016 election cycle, including more than $18.4 million from contributors who gave less than $200 each. The PAC has said it plans to spend as much as $35 million in the upcoming midterm elections, focused on electing candidates who will curb the influence campaign money. A key part of the PAC’s message will be that current campaign finance rules contributed to a scandal over Russian influence in the last election.
Both House and Senate intelligence committees—as well as a recently appointed special prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert Mueller—are investigating allegations of Russian interference and possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. These investigations are believed to focus mainly on Russian involvement in hacking the computer systems of the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, in order to make public during the campaign information damaging to Clinton and helpful to Trump.
In addition, the Federal Election Commission has more than a dozen pending enforcement complaints alleging that foreign money was illegally funneled into influencing elections last year. It remains unclear what action, if any, the FEC has taken. Among the unresolved allegations are charges, reported recently in Time Magazine, that Russian agents bought ads on Facebook to disseminate propaganda to influence the 2016 election.
FEC Chairman Steven Walther said in an open commission meeting May 25 that the agency had 15 enforcement cases involving allegations of foreign money in campaigns pending at the beginning of 2017. He provided no details about the enforcement matters, which are supposed to be handled in strict secrecy by the FEC until they’re resolved.
Walther, who holds a Democratic seat on the FEC, did express a degree of frustration that the agency wasn’t moving faster in its handling of allegations regarding foreign money in campaigns.
Another commissioner, Democrat Ellen Weintraub, has pressed for the FEC to begin a new rulemaking to prevent foreign money from being funneled into campaigns through corporations. Republican FEC commissioners, however, opposed Weintraub’s approach in a vote held early this year.
Weintraub called for a possible ban of campaign money from corporations based on their level of ownership or control by foreign citizens or foreign governments. The FEC Republicans supported a counterproposal by Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman, which was based on requiring a certification that corporate contributions to a super PAC are made from money earned in the U.S., and corporate campaign spending decisions are controlled by individuals who are U.S. citizens.
The FEC Republicans, including Goodman, FEC Vice Chair Caroline Hunter and Commissioner Matthew Petersen, issued a statement after the FEC’s last public discussion on foreign money, saying such money is already illegal and suggesting no new rules are needed.
The statement said the FEC commissioners had “committed to expedite” enforcement matters related to foreign money and had offered policy proposals to clarify current rules. The Republicans also said there was “no evidence of a concerted effort” by foreigners to provide money to influence U.S. campaigns, and opening a new rulemaking on the subject was unnecessary, at least for now.
The six-member FEC is evenly divided between three seats for commissioners recommended by Democrats and three by Republicans. One Democratic seat currently is vacant. Votes of at least four commissioners are needed for any FEC action.
Raskin’s House bill, the Get Foreign Money Out of U.S. Elections Act (H.R. 1615), was introduced in March and is co-sponsored by 32 other House Democrats. Key provisions of the bill are similar to Weintraub’s FEC rulemaking proposal—calling for a ban on campaign money from corporations whose stock is more than 20 percent foreign-owned. The threshold would be 5 percent for ownership by a foreign government entity.
Also banned from providing campaign money would be any corporation in which foreigners have “power to direct, dictate, or control” decisions about the company’s U.S. interests or its activities regarding federal, state, or local elections.
The bill would call for each corporation to file a certification with the FEC that it is not foreign-owned or controlled before making a direct campaign expenditure to influence federal elections or a contribution to a super political action committee or other campaign spending group.
“When the Supreme Court invented corporate free speech rights in Citizens United, it created a massive foreign money loophole in our country’s campaign finance system,” Raskin said in a statement issued by the End Citizens United PAC. He said allowing corporate money to influence elections provides “an easy and perfectly lawful way to funnel foreign money into American elections.”
Raskin told Bloomberg BNA in a telephone interview that he viewed his bill as a “logical extension of what the law is today.” He said it would be a proper legislative response to rising public concern fueled by news about possible Russian influence in the 2016 election, noting that the Supreme Court has upheld the long-standing ban on foreign money aimed at influencing U.S. elections, even after the Citizens United ruling.
Congressional Republicans have tried to play down the impact of the investigations of Russian influence in Trump’s election, Raskin said. Despite that, questions about possible foreign influence in the 2016 have “picked up so much traction” as a political issue that Republicans may be beginning to feel pressure to act, he said.
“That pressure is going to build,” Raskin said.
The End Citizens United PAC, which claims more than 3 million members, said its new, grassroots campaign calling on Republicans to co-sponsor the Raskin foreign-money bill, would put more pressure on these lawmakers. The PAC said it was mobilizing members to call and email representatives, attend local town hall events and write letters to the editors to hometown newspapers.
The PAC also said it would launch paid digital advertising in the districts of Ryan and seven other Republicans, including Martha McSally (R-Ariz), Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), and Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.).
No dollar figure for the advertising effort was provided, and it was unclear if the PAC eventually would buy more expensive television ads focused on the foreign money issue.
The PAC’s executive director, Tiffany Muller, indicated that her group sees the concerns about foreign money as part of a larger effort to control money in politics.
“Americans deserve to have faith that our elections are fair and free from undue outside influence—whether it is international or domestic, from Russia or Wall Street,” she said in a statement.
Opinion polling sponsored by End Citizens United has shown that possible foreign influence is a top concern of voters with current campaign finance rules allowing money from undisclosed sources—dark money—to influence elections. A national poll conducted last year found that 73 percent of voters were concerned a “great deal” and another 16 percent were “somewhat” concerned that foreigners are able to donate money in secret to influence campaigns, according to data provided the PAC provided to Bloomberg BNA.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com
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