Tester calls for campaign finance reform

Lee State Bureau

One reason nothing seems to get done in Washington is that senators and representatives feel the threat of “big money” being spent to defeat them in the next election, Sen. Jon Tester said Friday.

The Democratic senator spoke at a conference here on campaign finances sponsored by the Burton K. Wheeler Center.

“Why is it that despite almost every lawmaker acknowledging that we need to get our fiscal house in order, we can’t seem to do it?” Tester asked.

Members of the Senate and House talk about working together and reaching across the aisle, he said.

“What’s holding them back is a threat if you take a position, if there’s a threat of big money coming in taking you out, you’re not going to do it,” he said.

Tester said he knows first-hand the impact of big money in elections.

Tester was involved in one of the nation’s most expensive races per capita when he was re-elected in 2012 and defeated Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. More than $50 million was spent by the two campaigns, plus groups that made independent expenditures for or against the candidates.

“That’s more than $100 for every vote cast,” he said. “In a state like Montana, where the average household pulled in $45,000 in 2012, that’s an enormous sum of money.”

Tester criticized the U.S. Supreme Court over its Citizens United decision in 2010 and its recent McCutcheon ruling.

In Citizens United, the court removed restrictions on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.

In McCutcheon it eliminated aggregate overall contribution limits to political candidates and party committees. That’s one step away from eliminating individual campaign contribution limits, he said.

“If the court blew open the doors of campaign finance reform with Citizens United, the McCutcheon case starts to tear the house down,” he said.

In 2012, he said only 1,200 Americans hit the aggregate caps that the McCutcheon case threw out, “1,200 in a country of three hundred and two million.”

He said the U.S. Supreme Court justices don’t have a grasp on the situation on the ground.

“The combined net worth of the Koch Brothers is $72 billion,” he said, referring to the brothers who donate heavily to conservative causes and groups. “The average Montanan makes around $25,000 a year. Who do you think is going to have a bigger influence on the political process?”

Tester said he, working with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has introduced a constitutional amendment stating that Congress has the power to make laws about spending in federal elections, while state legislatures have the power to make their own decisions about state elections.

However, he said it’s almost impossible to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Tester has proposed that the U.S. Senate require Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports like House candidates do, instead of having to file the reports on paper. The paper filings prevent Americans from seeing who is backing Senate campaigns for month.

The House blocked the change.

Tester said he also supports the DISCLOSE Act, which would significantly increase public access to information about corporate and interest group spending. One provision would require broadcast ads to include a statement naming the organization responsible for them.

Republicans blocked a vote on this bill in 2012, he said.

“Our Founders envisioned a nation where everyone’s vote was equal,” Tester said. “Where campaigns were determined by the people and their ideas – not the wealthy few and their money. That’s not what we have today.”

It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, he said.

“At its heart, this is about what kind of government we want to pass down to our kids and grandkids. They deserve a government that works for them that’s transparent, fair and honest.”