As a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump railed against the political money system, saying it offers big donors outsized clout. But the changes he is likely to enable would roll back campaign finance regulations, allowing contributors to give even more.
The Republican’s victory in the presidential contest has given new hope to opponents of current donation limits and other restrictions, while it has jolted fear into those who want to overhaul political money laws to put ordinary Americans on more equal footing with megadonors.
“You can expect the Republicans to be very aggressive in lifting a lot of the regulations that are currently not only on political parties but on the system generally,” said James Bopp Jr., an attorney who supports campaign finance deregulation. “Everybody agrees the system is dysfunctional, but that is caused by the legal restrictions.”
Voters not only picked Trump, but they also kept the Senate in GOP hands. The majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is an advocate for campaign finance deregulation and for relaxing coordination rules between party committees and their candidates.
McConnell led the mostly unsuccessful legal challenge to the 2002 McCain-Feingold overhaul, which banned so-called soft money from corporations to political parties. But McConnell, whose office declined to comment, may now be poised to win. (The law is named for its Senate champions, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Russ Feingold, then a Democratic senator from Wisconsin.)
“The McCain-Feingold law was one of the worst pieces of legislation passed in the last 50 years; it was a horrible interference in the First Amendment rights of citizens,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission appointed by President George W. Bush.
Von Spakovsky, who manages the Election Law Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says he’s hopeful that McConnell and Trump, along with a Republican House, will greatly increase the limits on donations to party committees and candidates, or undo the limits altogether. Individual donors can give no more than $2,700 directly to candidates per election in the 2016 cycle.
He believes that Trump’s aides and advisers, including lawyer Donald McGahn, another former FEC commissioner who advocates for deregulation, reveal where Trump is on the issue. McGahn on Friday was named general counsel of the president-elect's transition team.
“I’m very hopeful,” von Spakovsky said.
All this has progressives rethinking their entire strategy when it comes to campaign money. Had voters elected Democrat Hillary Clinton, they believed she would have ushered in new requirements for political disclosures.
Instead of pushing for new federal disclosures, campaign overhaul groups will now step up their focus on state and local ballot initiatives. They also plan to put greater emphasis on working to convince big corporations to voluntarily disclose more of their political spending, a move that has had increasing success.
But on Capitol Hill, they will try to limit their losses.
“There will be a lot of defensive work that will have to happen at the federal level, fending off attacks on regulations that are the last bastions of our campaign finance law,” said Lisa Gilbert, who runs the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen.
Public Citizen and a coalition of other progressive organizations will be on high alert for new riders on any year-end budget packages, Gilbert said, but that may be largely symbolic, since McConnell will have an easier shot of moving measures after Trump moves into the White House. So a victory in the lame-duck for progressives may be short-lived.
Trump’s election and the continuing GOP control of the Senate also mean that the next Supreme Court justice is expected to be a conservative, along the lines of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Liberals had viewed the vacancy, left by Scalia’s death on Feb. 13, as an opportunity for a redo of court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC, which helped usher in big-money super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals.
Bopp said Friday he was filing an appeal to the high court in a case, Louisiana Republican Party v. FEC, that challenges soft money bans in state and local parties.
“With the prospect of a Trump appointment of a conservative to the court, that case has very bright prospects,” Bopp said.
Even so, some campaign finance experts say that trying to determine what specific policies Trump would, or would not, support is no easy task.
Trump while campaigning for the White House called the political money system “broken” and said that he knew that, as a billionaire and campaign donor, he had greater access to politicians. His supporters may find it surprising then if he were to help loosen the existing restrictions. Public opinion polls show voters of all political persuasions say they favor changes to the system.
“There’s kind of a conflict between his campaign rhetoric of draining the swamp and what the Republican Congress historically has wanted to do on campaign finance,” said FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub. “Candidates were actually talking about this issue in this election, including the president-elect. There’s an opportunity for somebody that wants to tackle an issue with a lot of popular appeal.”