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HARRISBURG — In recent years, mega-donors and advocacy groups have flooded campaigns in Pennsylvania with millions of dollars in donations.
A Pennsylvania lawmaker wants to change that and plans to introduce a resolution asking Congress to give state legislatures more powers to regulate the flow of outside cash in federal elections.
But MP Meghan Schroeder’s (R., Bucks) push for more local scrutiny will likely face an uphill battle with other lawmakers. Pennsylvania has some of the most lax campaign finance rules in the country, and calls to tighten them have been ignored in the legislature for decades.
Schroeder’s resolution calls on Congress to pass a “For Our Liberty” amendment to the US Constitution to give state legislatures “authority to regulate.” [independent political spending] as they see fit in their respective jurisdictions,” read a memo she circulated to colleagues earlier this week.
The proposed change would be Trump Citizens United vs FECthe landmark 2010 US Supreme Court decision which, along with subsequent High Court rulings, enabled the creation of super PACs – political action committees that, unlike their PAC counterparts, can accept unlimited amounts of money from donors.
Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert and lobbyist at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said states can control super-PAC spending on state elections, but no one can control their spending at the federal level because of “poor reasoning.” by the US Supreme Court.
Holman said the court erroneously assumed that outside groups were incorruptible if they were “unaffiliated with candidates.”
It is now clear that this is not the case, he said.
Super PACs can spend unlimited money on elections as long as they don’t vote directly with a candidate. To circumvent this rule, Super PACs will support candidates indirectly by funding expenses such as ads, surveys, and more.
As of June 7, about 2,000 organized super PACs nationwide have already reported nearly $1.1 billion in total spending for the 2021-2022 election cycle, according to nonprofit watchdog OpenSecrets.
The amendment would not impose any restrictions itself, but it would give state elected officials the power to set rules for federal elections in their respective jurisdictions – which would include the spending of super PACs.
“I believe that in this Commonwealth, the General Assembly should have the ability to regulate the roles and transparency that govern our campaign finance systems,” Schroeder said at a Capitol news conference this week.
A report released by American Promise, a national nonprofit that supports the change, found that a lack of local control over external spending has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from outside the United States in recent years State went into the US Senate race in Pennsylvania. That makes it harder — and more expensive — to win elected office than ever before.
It warned that donations from these organizations – including so-called “social welfare groups” which are not required to disclose their donors – can distract voters from issues and increase attack ads at the expense of informational ads.
The report cites the 2016 US Senate race as an example of how outside donors influenced a campaign in Pennsylvania.
Candidates who ran in both the primary and general elections received $120 million from Super PACs, out of the total $170 million raised in that election.
The groups that spent the most were the Senate Majority PAC, which is affiliated with the national Democratic Party, and the Senate Leadership Fund, which is affiliated with the national Republican Party, according to the report. Both PACs contributed approximately $19 million and $15 million, respectively.
With Pennsylvania set to be a key state in this year’s midterm election, residents can expect an intensification of out-of-state donations, the report says, as Democratic Lt. gov. John Fetterman is confronted by prominent heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, who was backed by ex-President Donald Trump.
“Pennsylvania is not a playground for billionaires in the DC advisory class,” said American Promise executive director Bill Cortese, who joined Schroeder at the press conference. “Pennsylvanians deserve to dictate who runs their state and who they send to Washington.”
Cortese said some outside spending comes from dark money groups that are not legally required to publicly disclose their donors.
“We have no traceability [it]. We have no idea where it came from [from]’ Cortese said of that money, adding that foreign actors could exploit this opacity to influence elections.
If the Pennsylvania Legislature approved Schroeder’s action, Pennsylvania would become the 23rd state to pass a resolution calling for greater local control over external federal election spending.
A two-thirds majority in both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate is required to approve the wording of a proposed amendment. After that, the amendment would be sent back to state legislatures for ratification. Then 38 states would have to ratify the amendment for it to come into force.
The last amendment to the US Constitution — the 27th Amendment, which regulates congressional salaries — took more than 200 years to ratify.
Back in Pennsylvania, before Schroeder’s resolution can even get through Congress, it must be endorsed by a state legislature that, despite numerous efforts over the years to tighten the rules, has failed to make significant changes to its own campaign finance laws.
According to Holman, the state has the power to regulate and pass campaign finance laws related to its state-level elections. However, unlike most other states, Pennsylvania has no monetary limits on political donations. Donors of high profile national campaigns can – and do – make six and even seven figure donations to candidates.
There are also few restrictions on how campaign funds can be spent and no mandates to disclose details of how candidates use those funds.
Bills to change the system have been introduced in almost every two-year parliamentary term for the past decade, but have remained without a hearing.
State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), a longtime proponent of changes to campaign finance, has introduced legislation in multiple terms that would put a monetary cap on campaign donations and make campaign spending more transparent.
Colleen DeFrank, a spokeswoman for the state Senate Democrats, said Costa plans to introduce similar legislation again.
When asked why Costa’s previous proposals were not implemented, DeFrank blamed Republicans in the state Senate.
“Because the bill was never considered by committee, Senator Costa has made multiple attempts to introduce the plan as an amendment to various election bills that have been submitted to the Senate, but have also been blocked from consideration by Senate Republicans,” she said wrote in an email.
Erica Clayton Wright, a Senate Republican spokeswoman, said, “It’s difficult to comment on something that hasn’t been introduced. We haven’t seen language, nor do we know if [it] will be introduced.”
Jaxon White is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. Learn more about the program. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you committed to responsible journalism that gets results.