Trevor Potter 'Everything Depends on Fixing Campaign Finance'

Former FEC Chair and Nonresident Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings institute, Trevor Potter spoke at the Chautauqua 2013 lecture series on ‘Markets, Morals and the Social Contract.’ The lecture focused on the ever expanding role of money in politics and the unique challenges America faces in a post-Citizens United world.

Potter, a Republican who founded the Campaign Legal Center and served as John McCain’s General Council during the 2008 presidential bid, held his lecture Wednesday.

His discussion included a general background on the legal atmosphere surrounding campaign finance law to questions from the audience. The talk spanned a wide breadth of topics but most notably it touched on low voter participation, the Federal Elections Commission, and public financing.

Voter Participation

Mr. Potter painted a bleak picture when it came to the number of American voters who donate to candidates or political organizations. Only one-third of one percent (0.33) of voters contribute at least $200 to political campaigns each election cycle. Almost 90 percent of donations to Super PACs came from less than 630 individuals.

This has paved the way for less diverse interests to carve out their niche within the political process. Likewise, Potter shared a very telling anecdote about a significant political donor who described his concerns for the future. The unnamed source told Potter,

“[H]e is worrying about what is happening with political fundraising. He said he feared that it would soon be down to ‘a couple of guys in a room.’ And his concern was that he would not be in that room. So if even the very rich are feeling left out by the super rich, how is the rest of our democracy to feel?”

Federal Elections Commission

As voter engagement atrophies, overall fundraising has risen. Spending in Presidential elections has increased 337 percent since 1992, jumping 35 percent each election cycle. If this trend continues, the 2016 presidential election could reach nearly $9.5 billion.

Congressional spending shows a similar trend. The cost of an average House and Senate race has increased by 75 and 100 percent respectively since 2002.

The trend towards ever more money in federal elections has been met poorly with what was designed to be a robust and bipartisan solution to the corruptible influence of money in politics, the Federal Elections Commission. Mr. Potter was less than optimistic about the agencies’ capacity to fulfill it’s original mandate in the current political climate:

“Today it is reduced to yet another example of deep partisan and philosophical disagreement in Washington. Usually deadlocked 3-3 with the Republican commissioners opposed to enforcing the campaign finance laws passed by Congress because they do not agree with them.”

Public Financing

The 2012 election was the first in several decades wherein both candidates opted out of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.  As a result the time presidential candidates spent fundraising in 2012 compared to earlier elections was dramatically different. Thus, the priorities of presidential candidates have shifted following the move away from public financing.

President Ronald Reagan (a participant of the federal public election funding system) attended 9 fundraisers in 1984, his reelection year. However, none were for his own campaign because it was publicly funded. Yet, President Obama attended 222 fundraisers throughout the 2012 campaign. All of which were for his reelection and marked the most time spent fundraising by an incumbent President.

Potter argues no matter which field of public policy one is interested in ‘fixing,’ it all hinges on reforming how politicians fund their campaigns and who is participating. “If we can fix our federal campaign finance system, everything else is possible.”