July 1, 2019

Whitehouse, Blumenthal, Hirono File Brief in Key Challenge to Unlimited Super PAC Spending in Elections

Washington, DC – Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Lieu v. Federal Election Commission, a challenge to unlimited political spending in elections through super PACs and other outside groups.  In their brief, the senators urge the court to reexamine a previous holding that failed to recognize the practical effect of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) allowing unlimited special interest spending in federal elections – an effect the senators have seen play out firsthand in federal elections. 

The senators point out that Republicans and Democrats alike worry about the corruption flowing from unlimited spending in politics.  The late Senator John McCain (R-AZ) – Republicans’ 2008 nominee for President – said in 2012, “What we have done is made a contribution limit a joke.”  Even President Trump said when campaigning in 2016, “these super PACs are a disaster. . . very corrupt. . . there is total control of the candidates . . . .”

Whitehouse and McCain filed a brief in May 2012 detailing the explosion of anonymous political spending since the Citizens United decision.

In the brief filed today, the senators also emphasize that special interests’ ability to spend unlimited sums in elections also comes with the ability to threaten to spend those sums, regardless of whether the special interest carries through.  “This power allows large contributors another way to manipulate and influence politicians outside the public eye,” the senators write.  “Legislators tasked with exercising independent judgment instead fear uncapped spending by adverse third parties in their next campaigns.   SpeechNow failed to recognize the increased risk of corruption from the private threats and promises in an arena allowing unlimited campaign spending.  Consequently, elected public officials face worsened pressure to answer not to their constituents, but to interests with the economic means and motive to subvert the democratic process.”

In February, Congressmen Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and others brought the case against the FEC alleging that the Commission had relied on an “unlawful ruling” in SpeechNow.org v. FEC to dismiss a complaint against several super PACs.  The plaintiffs contend contributions that the organizations had knowingly accepted in excess of limits set by federal campaign finance law.

A copy of the senators’ brief is available here.



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