Newly available video shows Hillary Clinton at the Iowa City Public Library responding to a request from Mason Buonadonna, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student, to “name two civic things that you’re going to do to combat money in politics.”
Clinton, who has vaguely vowed to make “Revitalizing Our Democracy” one of the “Four Fights” of her presidential campaign, responded largely with a flavorless mush of platitudes.
The most notable thing Clinton said was that she would “do everything I can” to appoint Supreme Court justices who would reverse not just 2010’s Citizens United decision but the earlier 1975 campaign finance case Buckley v. Valeo. Buckley struck down limits on overall campaign spending by candidates as violations of the First Amendment, and laid the groundwork for Citizens United as well as another crucial case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
The video was released by Democracy Matters, a national student organization founded by former NBA center Adonal Foyle “to get big private money out of politics and people back in.” Clinton was at the library for a campaign event on July 7 when Buonadonna, who is president of the Democracy Matters University of Iowa chapter, came up to her and asked his question. Democracy Matters members are currently following presidential candidates across Iowa and New Hampshire to try to do what the national press corps rarely will: pester politicians with questions on money and politics until they get real answers.
The entire video and transcript are below, but here are the highlights of Clinton’s response:
• “I believe in publicly financed elections, we’ve had a check box on the tax form for a long time, and most people don’t check it anymore.”
It’s always better to have big-time politicians say the right thing than not. And Clinton may in her heart “believe” in publicly financed elections. But Lance Armstrong may also truly “believe” in clean, no-doping professional cycling.
And just as Armstrong did what he felt he had to to win, Clinton has declined to participate in the presidential public financing system, because it places limits on how much candidates can spend. She did not take the available matching funds in her 2008 primary campaign. Nor is there any indication she will for the 2016 primaries or (assuming she’s the Democratic nominee) the presidential campaign.
It’s defensible for her not to want to unilaterally disarm for the 2016 general election, since the public financing system would limit her campaign’s total spending to only $100 million. (Romney spent almost $500 million in 2012, even without counting outside spending, and the 2016 Republican candidate will surely spend far more.) It was perhaps legitimate for her to opt out for the 2008 primaries, since Obama did as well. But Clinton could participate in the public financing system in the 2016 primaries versus Bernie Sanders et al. She won’t.
What she said about the “check box on the tax form” is weirdly irrelevant. She’s certainly right that fewer and fewer people ask for $3 of their taxes to go to the public campaign fund. But because fewer and fewer presidential candidates are using that funding it’s been piling up, and the amount available now is at an all-time high. So the money’s there if Clinton wants it.
If Clinton truly does support public financing, the most important thing she could do would be to strongly endorse the Government By the People Act — which would create a significant public financing system for Congress — and use her campaign to educate people about it.
• “We’ve got a Federal Elections Commission that is paralyzed because Republicans won’t enforce the laws …”
This is true. Moreover, this is largely because four of the current six members of the FEC were appointed by George W. Bush and are still there even though their terms have expired — since Senate Republicans won’t approve any nominees and Obama refuses to go around them with recess appointments. So Clinton could promise to replace the four with recess appointments. She didn’t.
• “… We have to reverse the effects, not just of Citizens United, but of the Buckley case … If necessary I will support a constitutional amendment.”
It would be nice for Clinton to “support” a constitutional amendment on money in politics, just as it’s nice that Obama already “supports” one. However, the president has no formal role in amending the constitution.
Democracy Matters has now posted six follow-up questions that it hopes its members will be able to ask Clinton. For his part, Buonadonna said he was happy Clinton spoke positively about public financing of campaigns, but that he wants her to either endorse the Government By the People Act or explain what other legislation she would back. He also said Clinton should present “a detailed plan of how” she would push to amend the constitution.
BUONADONNA: Do you know if you support publicly financed elections?
BUONADONNA: And can you name two civic things that you’re going to do to combat money in politics?
CLINTON: Well, let me say that I believe in publicly financed elections, we’ve had a check box on the tax form for a long time, and most people don’t check it anymore. And with the Supreme Court opening the door to all this unaccountable, undisclosed money, it’s very difficult to get the changes we need. And then we’ve got a Federal Elections Commission that is paralyzed because Republicans won’t enforce the laws, even as we think that they should be. So I think we have to do several things. Most importantly, we have to reverse the effects, not just of Citizens United, but of the Buckley case, and I’m going to do everything I can to appoint Supreme Court justices who understand that, I’ll do everything I can to then go to a legal framework and, as I said, if necessary I will support a constitutional amendment, okay?
BUONADONNA: Thank you so much.
CLINTON: Thank you.