President Barack Obama may have raged against the Supreme Court’s campaign finance game-changing decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but he’s no hypocrite for now benefiting from it, former congressman and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Martin Frost says.
“If you’re a candidate — I don’t care whether you’re running for president or running for Congress or running for some other office — you live under the laws that are in place at the time, and so I don’t see any problem with the president benefiting from these outside groups after saying he disagreed with what the Supreme Court did,” Frost said during the final installment of POLITICO’s weeklong video series about money’s influence on politics.
That doesn’t mean the nation’s campaign finance system, in which outside political organizations may now raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for or against political candidates, isn’t fundamentally broken, noted Frost, who represented the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Congress between 1979 and 2005 and is now a practicing attorney.
Such a situation is “extreme,” Frost said, particularly since many political groups don’t have to disclose their donors and may spend their cash until Election Day.
“It is the worst possible result,” he said.
How to change it, Frost said, is a constitutional amendment — something that’s incredibly difficult to achieve.
“The courts have taken the position that money equals speech. This is a free-speech issue, and so you can’t limit what corporations spend, you can’t limit what individuals spend, and so we’re stuck with this very terrible system, quite frankly,” he said. “We did try and amend the Constitution when I was in Congress, and what you have to do is to provide that constitutional amendment that would give the authority to Congress to enact legislation putting spending limits on all kinds of groups and individuals. Only about three or four of us voted for it. Nobody wanted to be for that.”
As a result of this new campaign finance landscape, are political party committees destined to become marginalized?
“Political parties to a degree have,” Frost said. “The parties run some of these issue ads attacking the opponent or supporting the candidate, but a lot more money will be spent outside the party structure on both sides. And it’s a direct result of some reformers thinking that they could fix the system and disregarding the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court was on the other side.”
Since Frost’s time in Congress, the act of fundraising itself has certainly changed, he said. Most notably: the amount of time lawmakers spend doing it.
“It is harder, I believe, to do a really good job when you’re diverted by having to spend so much time raising money,” Frost said. “You adjust and you figure it out and you hire people to do fundraising for you, and you do a lot of events, but the bottom line is that because of the cost of campaigns, you don’t have as much time as you otherwise would or should have to devote to the job of being a member of Congress, and that’s really unfortunate.”
But public funding of campaigns isn’t likely a feasible answer at this juncture, Frost said.
“The public is not even real crazy about the system where you use tax money to go to presidential campaigns, but they certainly are not for funding campaigns for U.S. House and the Senate with taxpayer money,” he said. “And even if you could pass something like that, there would have to be a loophole. You could always reject the federal funds if you wanted to go out and raise more money.”
The ultimate solution again, Frost said, is a constitutional amendment.
As for the nation’s campaign finance future, Frost offered one firm prediction: Americans will not see the likes of Obama anytime soon — at least as far as his fundraising is concerned.
“Many Democratic candidates in the future will not be able to raise, I don’t believe … the amount of money that Barack Obama has raised,” Frost said. “He was an unusual candidate, transformed the political process, the first black president of the United States, had a very strong appeal and was able to raise money, a lot of money online from a lot of people, both black, white and brown around the country who saw this as a very unusual and seminal moment for the United States.”
Obama, who raised about three-fourths of $1 billion during the 2008 cycle, is widely expected to again raise at least that during the 2012 cycle.
No other presidential candidate has ever come close, and certainly, none have raised $1 billion toward an election — a goal not unachievable for Obama.
Frost, for his part, said he believes Obama will win a second term.
“But at the end of his second term, … we go back to a system where the candidates are more traditional,” he said. “Some people may be lulled into a sense of security here, false security, and, ‘Wow, Barack Obama could raise all this money, so why do we need limits on spending? Why do we need any of these laws? Just let the candidate go out and raise whatever he can.’ I’m not sure the next Democrat will be able to match what Barack Obama has done.”
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