How to end foreign money in politics? Progressive group has a bold idea.
Foreign election interference is among the most troublesome challenges confronting democracy now — and not just by America's adversaries who hack votes and spread disinformation. Federal law is written to prevent allies and enemies alike from spending foreign money to influence American politics. But the loopholes are ample and they've been exploited for decades.
The Center for American Progress, one of the country's most prominent progressive public policy advocacy groups, has stepped forward with a solution — albeit a lofty one. On Thursday it outlined an ambitious proposal to virtually eliminate spending on U.S. campaigns by businesses under even minimal foreign influence.
As with so much else on the democracy reform agenda, however, the odds are prohibitive that any legislation along the lines CAP wants will get through the current Congress. Such bills might get through the Democratic House but are doomed in the Republican Senate, especially given Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's disdain for regulating campaign finance.
The proposed legislation unveiled by CAP would prohibit election spending by corporations that meet any of three thresholds for overseas investment:
- A single foreigner owns or controls 1 percent or more of the corporation's equity.
- Foreign shareholders combine to own or control 5 percent or more of the corporation's equity.
- Any foreign entity participates in the corporation's decision-making process about election spending.
Under these restrictions, CAP estimates, 98 percent of the nation's 500 biggest publicly traded companies would currently be barred from political spending — leaving fewer than a dozen businesses in the S&P 500 index free to contribute to candidates and special-interest campaigns at will. The group estimates that slightly more than a quarter of smaller public companies would be similarly pushed out of the campaign financing world.
Just 5 percent of corporate stock in America was foreign-owned four decades ago, but that share has ballooned sevenfold to 35 percent as of 2017, CAP reports. For instance, Saudi Arabia owns about 10 percent of Uber, yet the ride-sharing company still spends millions to sway elections and ballot measures in every election.
In the decade since the Supreme Court, in the landmark Citizens United case, struck down federal limits on corporate and union independent political spending as violating the First Amendment, such spending has set new records in each two-year election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which advocates for tighter campaign finance rules. And much of this spending is shrouded in mystery due to corporations using "dark money" groups — nonprofits that spend most of their money on political endeavors — to evade donor disclosure requirements.
Because many corporations spend on elections through these organizations, it's hard to determine just how much foreign influence there is. So the hope of policy proposals such as CAP's is that restricting corporate spending will address some aspects of foreign interference.
In her plan to "get big money out of politics," Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts backs these standards put forth by CAP. She's the only Democratic presidential candidate, so far, with a plan to implement such a proposal.
"It's time for lawmakers to close the loophole that allows foreign entities to use U.S. corporations to influence our elections. Imposing strict foreign ownership thresholds will help ensure that our elected representatives are accountable to Americans, not to corporate CEOs who are looking out for their foreign investors," said Michael Sozan, a senior fellow at CAP and author of the report.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.