Rotman is director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause, one of the nation's oldest democracy reform advocacy organizations. From 2006 to 2011 she was the first director of Connecticut's public campaign financing program and before that was deputy general counsel of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
When working-class Americans embrace the possibilities born of democracy, it often highlights that our government of, by and for the people is a work in progress. This is certainly the case when it comes to empowering working-class Americans to compete for a congressional seat. Just ask Nabilah Islam.
Islam ran for Congress in Georgia last year without a living wage or medical insurance. The Federal Election Commission then lacked the quorum required to issue an advisory opinion, requested by the candidate, as to whether she could use campaign funds to pay for health insurance.
So Islam had to go without coverage while campaigning for elected office last spring, during the first surge of the Covid-19 pandemic. (She finished third in the Democratic primary for an open House seat north of Atlanta.)
This scenario was unsafe for her. And it was unhealthy for our democracy.
Congressional candidates who represent the diversity of America — Islam only recently turned 30 and would have been the state's first Muslim member of Congress — must be able to seek office in Washington without worrying about a living wage or health insurance. Only 2 percent of the members of Congress have working-class backgrounds, and millionaires make up more than half of Congress, even though they amount to fewer than 5 percent of the national population.
Consequently, public policy decisions made by Congress too often reflect the interests and preferences of the wealthy instead of the priorities and views of the vast majority of Americans. Historical economic inequity along the lines of race and gender has translated to a lack of political representation for Americans of color and women.
Big Money still determines who can run for office and win, and what elected officials must work on when they get into office. Possibility is born of democracy, but Big Money has our democracy in a stranglehold. We must make it easier for everyday Americans to represent us in Washington.
Islam is now petitioning the FEC, which finally has a quorum so it can resume regulating the campaign finance system, to make clear that candidates may tap their campaign accounts to pay for health insurance. She is also asking the agency to strengthen rules that have long allowed candidates to draw a limited salary from their campaigns while running for federal office; Islam wants the regulations altered to include a living-wage floor as part of the the salary formula to make the funds available from the beginning of a candidate's campaign.
This would be a great start toward elevating opportunities for working-class Americans to run for Congress, and my organization supports her petition enthusiastically.
We need to go even further. Congress must pass the For the People Act, which passed the House last month as HR 1 and is now awaiting debate in the Senate as S 1, because the legislation would help curb the dominance of wealthy special interests drowning out the voices of working-class people.
Our system is out of balance and wealthy special interests now use their power to amplify their own voices and drown out the voices of everyday Americans.
Small-donor programs such as the one included in the For the People Act, and the one I led in Connecticut, work to combat these inequities and elevate the policies that favor large swaths of everyday Americans. (The legislation in Congress would establish a voluntary public financing system for congressional candidates, under which donations up to $200 would be matched six-fold, so long as the candidates agreed to forswear almost all Big Money contributions.)
Following implementation of the Connecticut program, the state became the first in the nation to enact sweeping health care coverage for its service workers.
Real people have been excluded from democracy by a disproportionate number of millionaire members of Congress. Working Americans embody our nation's hope, possibility and promise.
These are the voices we need seeking elective office in Washington and across the country, and it is time we take every step necessary to end the millionaire's club. Nabilah Islam's efforts at the FEC are a great start.
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The Georgia Republican Party and a conservative nonprofit have come under scrutiny for allegedly violating federal campaign finance law during the state's Senate runoff elections in January.
A pair of good-government groups, the Campaign Legal Center Action and Common Cause Georgia, filed a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission alleging that True the Vote, which says its mission to restore confidence in elections by combating voter fraud, illegally coordinated with the Georgia Republican Party ahead of the runoffs.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, True the Vote is prohibited from donating directly or indirectly to a political committee. Because it coordinated with the Georgia GOP, the complaint alleges, both parties violated campaign finance rules.
In December, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht announced in an email to supporters and in a press release that the Texas-based organization would assist the Georgia Republican Party with the runoffs. Her group helped with signature verification training, ballot curing support, a voter hotline, absentee ballot drop box monitoring and other election integrity initiatives.
Federal law prohibits corporations from making contributions — which include "coordinated expenditures" — to a political committee (other than a super PAC). The complaint alleges that the services True the Vote provided constitute expenditures and because they were done at the request of and in coordination with the state GOP, the activity amounts to prohibited in-kind contributions.
"It doesn't matter if True the Vote expressly urged voters to elect Republicans, the relevant legal question is whether True the Vote spent money 'in connection with an election' and coordinated that spending with the Georgia Republican Party," said Brendan Fischer, CLCA's director of federal reform. "The evidence shows that it did."
True the Vote did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the time the partnership was announced, Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer wrote that he was grateful for True the Vote's help in fighting for election integrity. "The resources of True the Vote will help us organize and implement the most comprehensive ballot security initiative in Georgia history," he said in the press release.
While working with the Georgia GOP, True the Vote challenged the eligibility of more than 364,000 voters ahead of the runoffs, claiming those voters may have recently moved and therefore weren't eligible to vote. In response, Stacey Abrahm's voting rights group Fair Fight filed a lawsuit alleging True the Vote's challenge amounted to voter intimidation.
A federal judge ultimately denied Fair Fight's request to stop the challenge, but expressed "grave concerns" about True the Vote challenging hundreds of thousands of voters' eligibility so close to the runoffs.
CLCA and Common Cause Georgia went further, filing a complaint.
"Corporations are not supposed to act as arms of campaigns, and since coordinated spending is just as valuable to candidates and political parties as direct contributions, coordination between outside spenders and their preferred political party must be strictly policed and enforced," the groups wrote in their press release about the complaint.
It will now be reviewed by FEC staff attorneys, who will develop a report and recommendation to the six commissioners about whether there is reason to believe the law was violated.
But this won't likely be a quick process. While the complaint's review will only take a few months, it could sit in the FEC's backlog of pending cases for as long as two years, Fischer said, since the agency has been slow to move on such issues.
If the FEC fails to take action in a timely manner, CLCA and Common Cause Georgia could sue the agency in order to have the complaint addressed more expeditiously.
"This is a striking example where the violations were hiding in plain sight," Fischer said. "We hope and expect that the FEC would enforce the law here and penalize both True the Vote and the Georgia Republican Party for this unlawful coordinated activity."
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The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic calamity will be remembered as the top stories of the year along with an extraordinarily contentious presidential contest — which faced extra challenges from Covid-19 and the incumbent president's unprecedented crusade to discredit American democracy. But the system survived, even as it got set back in some ways and improved at the margins in others.
How well do you remember the big moments in the world of democracy reform this past year? Take this quiz to find out.
The already minimalist regulation of federal campaign money can resume, after it was suspended for almost the entirety of the 2020 campaign, because three new members of the Federal Election Commission were confirmed Wednesday.
The Senate voted 92-4 to make Shana Broussard, a veteran FEC attorney, the first Black commissioner since the agency was created almost half a century ago. A Democrat, she was tapped because federal law requires the commission to have partisan balance. The results fell along party lines for the Republicans put forward by President Trump: 49-47 for conservative think tank attorney Allen Dickerson and 50-46 for senior Senate aide Sean Cooksey.
The confirmations will allow the FEC to get back to work just in time for the start of the 2022 midterm campaign — but too late to have any meaningful role in by far the most expensive cycle ever. The cash poured into presidential and congressional races doubled from four years ago, to $14 billion.
A steady flow of court decisions in favor of campaign finance deregulation, most notably the Citizens United case allowing unlimited corporate spending, have combined with almost uninterrupted partisan deadlock at the FEC to produce only minimal crackdowns on political money in the past decade.
But the FEC was not able to conduct even the most routine business during the last campaign because it has lacked a quorum for all but one of the past 16 months.
The three new members will mean all six seats are occupied for the first time in nearly four years.
It takes four commissioners to consider complaints about misconduct by candidates or groups that seek to influence elections, alter the rules at the margins or even conduct public hearings. The absence of that quorum has allowed 446 cases to gather dust on the enforcement docket -- with three fifths of those stuck at the point in the process when the commissioners could review them.
In 113 of those, the staff suspects campaign finance laws were broken, according to Commissioner Ellen Weintraub.
"The real mark of our progress will be not how many less-significant matters we dismiss, but how many quite significant matters we address," she said.
The backlog started to build in September 2019, when one commissioner resigned and left just three behind. Trump was able to get Texas campaign attorney Trey Trainor confirmed this spring after a three-year delay — but just a month later another resignation dropped the roster to three again.
Trump quickly nominated Dickerson, the top attorney at the Institute for Free Speech, which advocates for almost total deregulation of money in politics as part of its agenda to promote unfettered First Amendment rights. A week from the election, Trump announced his two other picks: Cooksey, general counsel to GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and before that an aide to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Broussard, who has been a senior FEC attorney for 12 years and before that was an IRS lawyer and New Orleans prosecutor.
By law, Trump could only nominate three people from his own party, making Broussard his sole Democratic pick. Senate Democrats have been promoting her nomination for more than a year, and career employees this summer pressed the president to nominate a person of color.
Wednesday's confirmations bring to 32 the number of commissioners since the FEC was created in 1975 in response to the campaign finance abuses of Watergate. All before Broussard have been white except Ann Ravel, a Latina who departed to run unsuccessfully for state Senate in California this year.
Democrat Weintraub has been a commissioner for 18 years and Steven Walther, an independent who mainly sides with her, for 12 years. Commissioners are supposed to serve six-year terms, but can stay on longer if no replacement arrives. So once he becomes president, Joe Biden may make two FEC nominations of his own.
Even with all six seats filled, the FEC is unlikely to be much more functional than it was without a quorum. In the past, three-to-three deadlocks have sidelined an array of proposals for controlling the ocean of cash surging through American politics.
Good-government groups worry this will continue to be an issue at the agency.
"The FEC's jurisdiction is candidates for federal office," noted Meredith McGehee of Issue One, which advocates for stricter campaign finance rules. (It owns but is journalistically independent from The Fulcrum.) "The FEC has frequently shown itself to be a prime example of a 'captured agency' that is more interested in pleasing politicians and the lawyers who appear before it than in protecting the public interest."
Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund, two democracy reform advocacy organizations that merged in January, lambasted the newly confirmed Republicans as commissioners "who will stonewall any action to uphold our campaign finance laws and hold violators accountable."
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