The Supreme Court’s decision will surely change the flow of money into this year’s election. But how, especially here in California?
For that we turn to Jessica Levinson. She teaches election law at Loyola Law School. She’s also vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission -- that’s the elections watchdog in L.A.
SCOTT SHAFER: Professor Levinson, welcome.
JESSICA LEVINSON: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAFER: Well first of all, give us just, if you would, your impression of this week’s Supreme Court decision.
LEVINSON: So this is a big but totally anticipated decision by the Supreme Court. And what the Supreme Court said in its predictable 5-4 split along ideological lines is that it infringes on First Amendment rights to limit the total amount that individuals can give to candidates and committees that give to candidates. So this decision wasn’t about the base contribution limits; it’s not about if you want to run for office and I want to give you money. I’m still limited to a thousand or two thousand or three thousand or whatever the direct contribution limit is. But now I can give that two thousand to as many other candidates as I want and I can also give to committees that then give to candidates. And 24 hours ago or 36 hours ago that was not the case. We used to have a total amount limit that contributors could give to candidates and to committees that give to candidates.
SHAFER: So under Citizens United, which I think was a 2010 decision, we’ve seen certainly in the last presidential election very wealthy people spending, you know, lots and lots of money, tens of millions of dollars. So what difference does it make to have this additional avenue of contribution?
LEVINSON: What it shows is it’s just the eroding of the whole campaign finance scheme, the whole campaign finance program that was implemented in the wake of Watergate. So there are essentially three pillars of that program. And one was contribution limits, and that’s what McCutcheon vs. FEC overturns the aggregate contribution limits. Another was expenditures, and Citizens United in 2010 eroded a lot of the expenditure restrictions. And the third is disclosure. So I think disclosure laws now are going to have to do a lot more work than they did in the past.
SHAFER: Well, I think you know Democrats and the media often focus on the conservative Koch brothers, or Sheldon Adelson, people who tend to give money to Republican candidates and causes. But the Democrats have plenty of high rollers themselves, including right here in California -- people like Tom Steyer, Eli Broad, Jeffrey Katzenberg down in Los Angeles. So isn’t this just sort of an equal opportunity ruling in a Se?
LEVINSON: Well, I actually think the people who are going to be really excited after a few election cycles about the McCutcheon decision are the party leaders because now they can say to donors, “Don’t give to that independent group. You don’t know exactly what they are going to say. You want these specific candidates to be elected, come home, give to the party, we know how to control the money, we’re going to make sure it’s used in its most efficient way. And so I think this could really embolden party leaders.
SHAFER: Even before this decision came down this week, campaign finance has been getting renewed focus here in California with the FBI investigations of state Sens. Leland Yee and Ronald Calderon down in Los Angeles. There’s been talk of reform, talk of banning fundraising while the Legislature is in session, even public financing of campaigns. What do you think of the chances of that gaining steam?
LEVINSON: Honestly, it is a very good PR move for the Democrats to take this moment to put forth any sort of political reform package that they have, which frankly, I think, many of those were needed in the first place. I think this is absolutely the moment to say we’re going to bring more transparency to elections in California. Will we see something like public financing? Public financing is a very hard sell. And typically entities get public financing because it’s passed by the ballot initiative process. And I don’t think that we’re going to see a successful effort at public financing on the statewide level in California any time soon.
SHAFER: All right, Jessica Levinson. She teaches election law at Loyola Law School. She is also vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Thanks so much.
LEVINSON: Thank you.