The issue of campaign financing lies at the intersection of money and politics, of morality and economics, and Trevor Potter thinks it’s time for a change.
At today’s morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater, Potter will show Chautauquans how the current system of campaign finance came to be. He is the founding president and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan “watchdog” in campaign finance, elections, political communication and government ethics.
For Potter, everything goes back to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Although the Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations are individuals, Potter disagrees.
“When business corporations spend that much money [on campaigns], they are seeking specific results from government,” Potter said. “It would be malfeasance for them to spend that much money if they didn’t think their shareholders were going to benefit in some particular way.”
Individual donations to a candidate’s campaign or political action committee are limited. A candidate cannot accept more than a certain amount, depending on where the money is going.
But “super PACs,” or independent expenditure-only committees, may raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations, unions and other organizations independent of a campaign.
This means that more money is up for grabs for politicians, if they’re willing to go after it.
“At its simplest level, we have members of Congress who are paid large salaries for full-time jobs who then spend up to half their day, every day, on fundraising rather than doing the job they’re being paid for,” Potter said.
For Potter, it’s a problem that raises questions on the morality of the current campaign finance system. He said one way to address these questions is to distinguish between individual money and corporation money.
“You buy Crest toothpaste, and you are not intending to support a specific set of candidates,” Potter said. “You’re intending to buy toothpaste.”
Individuals can differentiate between buying a product and supporting a candidate because they have different motives when spending money. When they donate money to a campaign, they want to show support for that candidate’s political platform and ideas.
Corporations, on the other hand, can only be motivated by profit. Potter said that a corporate CEO has an obligation to maximize corporate profit.
“Corporate money is only there in an attempt to buy an economic advantage in the marketplace,” Potter said.
He said politicians should be responsible to the people they represent. If politicians are indebted to corporations for their campaigns, then that responsibility may be forgotten.
“If all of their financial support comes from a tiny segment of the population,” Potter said, “and if in order to get that money, they have to spend all of their free time with that tiny segment of the population, then isn’t it likely that they will end up representing their donors rather than the population at large?”
People have expressed to Potter feelings of helplessness, of being stuck with a bad situation. And he decided to do something.
After last year’s presidential election, he drafted the American Anti-Corruption Act. He called it “small-form reform” that takes practical steps to reduce the corruption in campaign finance under current legislation. There are nine reforms in total.
The act answers a question often asked of Potter and his reform lawyers: What sort of solutions would work if Americans had a Congress that was willing to enact them?
“It would actually turn the system on its head,” Potter said. “It would be radical changes, but all of which could be done through current legislation.”