Summary

  • Commissioner Weintraub discussed campaign-finance law enforcement, preventing corruption and “dark-money” spending, disclosure, foreign influence, and other topics pertinent to campaign finance in the 2020 elections.

Federal Election Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub briefs at the FPC

FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub, Federal Election Commission

TOPIC:  ELECTIONS 101-CAMPAIGN FINANCE IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

TUESDAY, MARCH 10, 2020, 2:00 P.M. EDT

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center.  My name is Bryce Johnson, and I’m the FPC’s information outreach coordinator.  I also want to welcome my colleagues and other journalists at our New York Foreign Press Center who might be watching online, along with those watching from American Spaces abroad.

Today’s briefing is going to be on campaign finance in the 2020 elections.  It will be on the record and livestreamed on our website, which is fpc.state.gov.  You can go there to follow all of our future elections coverage.  Once the briefing is concluded, we will upload the transcript and video to our website.  Please give us a couple of hours to do so.

We’re going to begin the briefing with opening remarks from our briefer, Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub with the Federal Election Commission.  The Federal Election Commission, or FEC, is the independent regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing the federal campaign finance law.  For those that RSVP’d to this briefing, you received their biographies via email.

After opening remarks, we will open it up for questions.  At that time, please wait for the microphone.  State your name, outlet, and country clearly prior to asking a question.  And with that, I want to yield the floor to Ms. Weintraub, and thank her for coming for a second time to the FPC.

MS WEINTRAUB:  My pleasure.  Can everybody hear me okay?  All right.  Well, thank you, Bryce.  And thank you to the FPC.  It’s a pleasure to be here to talk to you about money in politics in the United States in a very interesting election year.

For the benefit of those of you who aren’t familiar with the FEC, it’s an unusual electoral commission in that we don’t run the elections.  Unlike most election commissions around the world that I’m familiar with, our elections are managed at the state and local level.  And what we do at the federal level is regulate money in politics.

So there are rules on – there are contribution limits; there are source restrictions.  There are rules on how the candidates can raise and spend their money.  And we are in charge of implementing and enforcing those rules.  And the primary rule is that the money which is raised has to be disclosed.  It is mostly a privately funded system, but the money is fully disclosed.  Presidential candidates in an election year file monthly reports.  So if I give you any numbers, they are probably current as of the end of January, because the monthly reports are due 20 days after the end of the month on the 20th day of the month, so the most recent set of reports we’ve collected are from – were filed on February 20th and are current as of the end of January.

So we have – as I said, there are limits.  No individual can give more than $2,800 to any candidate for any one election.  The limit on giving to the national party committee is $35,500, so it’s higher for the party committee than it is for individual candidates.  And each of the candidates raises money on their own into their own campaign committee.  And as I said, they have to file reports with us where they disclose every – the name of every donor who gives more than $200 cumulatively, and anybody that they expend funds to that receives more than $200 from the campaign.

Our campaigns are expensive.  It’s a big country, and particularly if you’re running a national campaign, it costs a lot of money to move around the country, and buy advertising, and hold rallies, and engage in a national campaign.  In 2016, the federal election which involved the presidency, the entire House of Representatives, and one third of the Senate all were up for election, and the cost of that election was $6.5 billion – billion with a B.  So that is a lot of money, and it probably will be more expensive this year.  We’ve already – candidates who have already dropped out of the race for nominating the presidency have already spent over a billion dollars.  And those are the ones who aren’t even in the race anymore.

Now, of course, we had a couple of candidates who spent a great deal of money, of their own money.  That is because our – although we have contribution limits, our Supreme Court has held that in the interest of protecting the First Amendment to our Constitution, which protects free speech and holds political speech in particularly high regard, the only justification for limiting – according to our Supreme Court – the amount of money that can be raised and spent in order to get one’s political message out is to counteract corruption, the risk of corruption of our system.  And our Supreme Court says you can’t corrupt yourself, so you can spend a limitless amount of your own money on your election.  And we had a couple of candidates this year who spent quite a bit of money on their own election.  Unfortunately, neither one of them was successful.  They both dropped out already.  But that’s how we go to the over a billion dollars already spent by the candidates who have dropped out.  We had a couple of very big spenders.

On the other hand, we have a lot of people who give money in very small amounts, in very small donations.  So for example, Bernie Sanders, who as of the end of January had raised $134 million, of that some $74 million was raised from people who gave less than $200.  So a great many people giving a small amount of money.  Joe Biden had raised $70 million, of which $25 million came in contributions under $200, from contributors who gave less than $200, and the President has raised $218 million, of which $45 million came from donors who have given less than $200.

So there are a lot of people out there participating at the grassroots, giving small amounts of money to try and support the candidate of their choice.  And it’s surprising how those small dollar donations really can add up.

There are source restrictions in addition to contribution limits, so corporations, labor organizations cannot give directly to candidates or to party committees, as well as government contractors and foreign nationals are not allowed to give.

Let’s see.  Why don’t I – I mean, that’s kind of the big picture overview.  As I said, it’s mostly a system that is focused on disclosure, and it’s pretty transparent.  We have a staff of people that collects all of this information.  We have analysts who review all the reports and request additional information if the reports appear to be inaccurate or incomplete, and we have obviously an excellent IT staff that gets all that information up on the web.  When the FEC was created back in the 1970s, we had a public records room, where people would have to come in.  Journalists like yourself would come in and pore through microfiche in order to find the records.  Nobody much comes into the public records room anymore because now we have the internet and everything is disclosed online, and it’s available to anybody who wants to look up the information at fec.gov, anywhere in the world.

So with that, why don’t I open it up to questions?  I’m happy to answer anything you want to know.

MODERATOR:  Alright.  I would like to remind everybody to raise your hand, and please, when you get a microphone, tell us your name and your outlet.  Alright.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Hi.  Jafar Jafari with Almayadeen.  Can you one more – once more clarify the delineation between the FEC costs and how you administer that?  And then where does the candidates’ cost come in?  Is there any relationship between the two?

MS WEINTRAUB:  I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking me.

QUESTION:  So the cost of the last elections I believe was $6 billion?

MS WEINTRAUB:  $6.5 billion.  That’s in money raised and spent by the candidates and the party committees.

QUESTION:  By the candidates.

MS WEINTRAUB:  And the – and other political organizations who are spending.  That’s not our budget.  Our budget is lower than that.

QUESTION:  So what does the FEC exactly do other than administer and make sure the dots are —

MS WEINTRAUB:  We collect all of this information.  We collect all the information about how much money is being raised and spent.  We analyze the reports.  We make it public so that everyone has that information in real time as they are trying to decide who to vote for; they know who’s supporting which candidates.  We have an enforcement function.  We have a lot of lawyers who work for us, so anyone can file a complaint if they think the law has been violated and our lawyers will examine it and present a recommendation to the commission to decide whether the law has been violated and then we can investigate.  We have subpoena authority, but all of our jurisdiction relates to money and politics.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  My name’s Alex Raufoglu.  I cover Azerbaijan for Turan News Agency.  I have two questions.  How common are the campaign violations based on foreign influence?  And has it ever reached to a level of fraud?  If it has, what is the remedy?  I mean, impeachment is some sort of version of remedy if you consider that, but how do you prevent foreign influence moving ahead?

And my second question, I’ve covered foreign lobbying in this town for a long time, from Azerbaijan to Russia to Turkey.  How do you draw the line between foreign lobbying – I mean, foreign countries seeking influence on the candidates through lobbying or versus other means that you are able to prevent?  Thank you.

MS WEINTRAUB:  So there is a law that says that foreign nationals are not allowed to spend money in our politics; they’re not allowed to contribute to any candidate, to the party committees, to any of the political committees that are out there.  And this is true at the federal, state, and local level.  So normally we just have jurisdiction at the federal level about the money that’s raised and spent on elections for Congress, for the House of Representatives, for the Senate, and for the presidency.  But when it comes to the foreign national ban, we have jurisdiction over elections throughout the country at any level.  It is just as illegal to make a foreign donation to a candidate for mayor as – or a sheriff as it is for the presidency.  And it is illegal to solicit, receive, or accept anything of value from a foreign source in connection with a U.S. election.  So – and we have jurisdiction over all of that.

The biggest case we had recently involved the domestic subsidiary of a Chinese company that made a $1.3 million donation to what – a super PAC, one of these outside political action committees that was supporting Jeb Bush in 2016, and the commission investigated that and negotiated a penalty of roughly $900,000 on that one.  So that was the biggest foreign national case that we’ve had recently, but it is an area of priority for the commission and the entire – all of the commissioners are very concerned about this issue.

You asked also about lobbying.  There are separate laws that we don’t administer.  There’s the Foreign Agents Registration Act for anyone who is lobbying the government, so not trying to spend money to get people elected but rather trying to influence what they do once they are in office.  And there are rules on disclosure and registration of people who are representing foreign governments in lobbying our government that’s administered by the Justice Department and to some degree by the Congress itself, which collects those reports.

MODERATOR:  All right.  I’m going to take a question online from our American spaces abroad, and then we’ll move to this gentleman.

All right.  I think based on today you’ll probably have an answer for this:  Usually there are four people that sit of the FEC commission, but there hasn’t been a quorum since September 2019.  How has that effected your work at the FEC?  Are there programs or services that you provide to political campaigns and political action committees that have been reduced or eliminated because of reduced staffing?

MS WEINTRAUB:  Okay.  So actually, that – the premise is wrong.  There are supposed to be six.  By law, there should be six commissioners, no more than three can be of any one political party, and it takes four commissioners to form a quorum to make most of our major decisions.  That – it was set up that way to ensure that decision making at the FEC is on a bipartisan basis and that the party in power cannot use the Federal Election Commission as a mechanism for penalizing their opponents and trying to extract penalties from them, financial penalties.  So we need four commissioners in order to start investigations, in order to conclude investigations, to negotiate any penalties, to give advice, or to issue new rules.

So it is a – and it is true that we’ve only had three since the end of last September, so that’s not good.  There are ongoing investigations that were authorized before we lost the quorum and those, as I said, are ongoing.  Our staff is still working on them.  It does not in any way impede our ability to collect the information about campaign finance and make it available to the public.  We have a staff of over 300 people who work for the agency and they continue to come to work every day and do their jobs.  And fortunately, not everything that the agency does requires commission input.

Just today, there was a hearing in the Senate on a new nominee who, if confirmed, would give us the four votes that we need to make all the important decisions that we need to make.  But the law continues to be in force and people can still file complaints.  Right now, they will be teed up for action.  So when we have the quorum restored, when we have four votes again, we will be able to make decisions on all of the matters that are awaiting the quorum.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  My name’s Alan Cassidy.  I’m from the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper in Switzerland.  There have been a number of issues concerning the election. Foreign influence has been mentioned, dark money, general fraud, I guess.  I just wonder, what are you most concerned about when you look at this year’s elections?

MS WEINTRAUB:  All that.  I’m always worried about dark money, which is money that is not fully disclosed.  We have a pretty transparent system, but people find ways around the law and find ways of hiding the money.  And I am concerned about that in part because if we don’t know the source of the money, then we cannot – not only do the voters not get the information they’re entitled to, but we also can’t verify that it’s legally able to be given in our elections.  So that’s – there’s an overlap between the dark money problem and the potential foreign money problem.  I do – I worry about that.

I worry about foreign disinformation campaigns; I worry about foreign attempts to perhaps funnel money into our elections.  We take those kinds of concerns very seriously.  And of course some of these overlap with the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, which is working with all of our state and local governments who will be administering the elections to work on issues like cybersecurity to make sure that our election systems are strong and that our voters can rely on the integrity of the election.

MODERATOR:  Any other questions?

QUESTION:  Hello.  Allen Abel from Maclean’s Magazine of Canada.  In your experience or in your lifetime, what is the trajectory of Americans’ trust that the elections are free and fair?  We hear the word “rigged” thrown from very high platforms.  Remember when you were a child how we all believed that the flag wrapped around elections, everything was perfect.  What’s the state of that belief now, do you think, when you go around the country?

MS WEINTRAUB:  Well, that’s a – that’s a very impressionistic question, so it’s not so much based on my expertise as an election commissioner as my – as a voter, as a citizen participating in the process and watching.  I think it is an area of concern that a lot of people are – there’s probably a lower level of trust now than there has been in the past.  And I think people on both sides are – have concerns on this, and perhaps for different reasons.  And of course we have siloing of the information that people get, so people tend to get their information from one source or another source and we don’t have the same kind of common set of information that everyone starts out with as a premise.  I mean, when I was growing up there were three major networks and everybody watched one of them, and they all said pretty much the same news in the same way every night, and our entire citizenry had just a set of common premises and assumptions and understandings about the way the world worked.  And I think we’ve become more segmented and more polarized, and that’s concerning.  But I believe that is not just a United States phenomenon, but perhaps a global phenomenon.

QUESTION:  Is it curable?  And how do we cure it?

MS WEINTRAUB:  Oh, wow.  I think that’s outside of my – what I can do at the FEC.  I don’t think that the FEC can cure it.  I’ll tell you that.

MODERATOR:  All right, I have a question from one of our participants online from American Spaces, and then we’ll go back to Alex.  “What kind of oversight does the FEC have on political action committees, PACs, and super PACs?

MS WEINTRAUB:  We have the same authority over PACs and super PACs as we have over candidates and party committees.  That is, they are – now, they don’t have contribution limits, the super PACs don’t.  They – a traditional PAC takes in limited amounts of money, no more than $5,000 from any one individual in a calendar year, and they can’t take corporate or labor organization money, and they give money directly to candidates – again, no more than $5,000 per year per candidate.  A super PAC engages in direct advocacy.  They’re not giving money to the candidates; they’re spending their own money.  And our Supreme Court has held that as long as that is done independently of the candidates, that there is no risk of corruption there, and therefore they have no contribution limits.  They can accept money from corporations and labor organizations.  They still can’t accept money from foreign nationals.  And they have become – super PACs have become a big force in our politics.  They spend – raise and spend a lot of money, all of which has to be disclosed just like any other PAC.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Hey, Alex Raufoglu again.  You mentioned the importance of disclosures.  This might be a far-fetched question, but does – do we – do our laws, campaign finance laws have any requirement of element – or element of the truth?  Because we hear the President talks about “fake news.”  We have all – fact-checking missions on both sides are involved.  But what do the laws say about that?  And also, my second question is about social media.  Do we know the importance or the role of the social media before 2016?  And if yes, now that we know its real power, are we well prepared now?  Thank you.

MS WEINTRAUB:  In terms of our jurisdiction, the truth that we have jurisdiction over ensuring is that people are properly filing their forms and conveying honest and true information in them.  Somebody has to sign every single campaign finance disclosure under penalty of perjury.  There’s a treasurer appointed for every political committee, for every candidate committee.  They sign under penalty of perjury, and people have gone to jail for making false statements to the government, including on their FEC reports.  So we do administer the laws that ensure the truth of the campaign finance disclosures.

We are not a free-ranging truth body.  We are not in a position to verify the truth of everything that every candidate or political actor says.  And I believe that if – that would be – if somebody tried to write a law giving us that power, I suspect the Supreme Court would say that was inconsistent with the First Amendment for the government to be deciding what’s true and what’s not true.  That is, the premise of our First Amendment is that people say what they want about politics and if somebody disagrees with them then they should engage in counter-speech and make a contrary argument, and the – ultimately the citizens will decide who’s right and who’s wrong or who they believe or who they want to support.

Did I – is there a second part?  Oh, the social media, yeah.  I mean, again, social media has taken on a bigger role, and I think that the platforms have a responsibility to make sure that they are being responsible purveyors of information, but that is – again, I think there would be First Amendment problems if somebody tried to write a law saying that we had to tell the social media companies what they could and couldn’t have on their platforms and what they can and can’t say.  I think the – there is some fact-checking that is going on.  They’re not fact-checking everything, but they are – the different platforms have adopted different standards.  I do think that we need to update some of our laws to take into account – some of our laws address advertising that goes on on a broadcast medium or in newspapers and doesn’t address digital advertising to the same degree.  And we are seeing, obviously, a big increase in digital advertising.  So I think that’s an area that some of our legislators are working on, and I hope they will succeed.

QUESTION:  Hello, my name is Charissa.  I’m a reporter from the Straits Times from Singapore.  My question is:  Are government employees restricted in whether they can contribute any money?  And also, has there been any recent push to limit the amount of money that a campaign can cost, because $6.5 billion is a lot, so I mean – and even recently, there’s been this backlash against billionaires, so has there been any of that sentiment going on recently?

MS WEINTRAUB:  The – I should make notes on all the two-part questions.  So the first part of the question was?

QUESTION:  On government employees.

MS WEINTRAUB:  Oh, government employees, yes.  There’s something called the Hatch Act, which again is – that is administered by yet another government agency that protects government employees from political coercion, from being put in a position where they would feel like they had to contribute to the political appointees who were their supervisors.  So there are protections for government employees, but as – but that’s somebody else’s jurisdiction to enforce.

In terms of the cost of the election, given that our Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that you cannot limit spending, just at all, and in particular that you can’t limit the amount of money that any individual can give to their own race or can spend independently of the candidates, I don’t see any way under that regime to control the costs.

But you have to look at it – it is a lot of money, but you have to look at it in the context of our overall economy, which is huge.  It’s a multi-trillion-dollar budget, and just to give you a couple of points of comparison, in 2019, apparently we managed to spend $8.8 billion on Halloween, which is an awful lot of candy.  That doesn’t sound like a very healthy thing to do.  And here’s one that I like better because it’s really very sweet:  In 2020, apparently just recently, we celebrated Valentine’s Day and spent $27.4 billion on Valentine’s Day, candy being the biggest part of that but also on cards and flowers and taking your sweetheart out to – for a nice evening to celebrate love.  So that’s really very sweet and romantic and that’s a whole lot more than we spent on the election.

And I just kind of throw those out because I know that it sounds like a lot of money, and it is indeed a lot of money, but you have to look at it in the context of the overall economy.  We spend a lot of money on a lot of things, and honestly I’m not offended that we spend a lot of money on democracy because it’s important.  People feel strongly about it; they want to get involved.  They want to contribute to candidates that they care about.  They sometimes want to contribute to fight off candidates that they don’t like.  But the fact that they are civically engaged and care about who wins the election, I think that is not necessarily a bad thing.

MODERATOR:  All right.  We’ll take a couple more questions.  I have one from one of our American Spaces.  “Can you walk through some of the basic regulations that the political campaigns of President Trump, Vice President Biden, and Senator Sanders must adhere to throughout the 2020 presidential campaign?”

MS WEINTRAUB:  Well, they have to comply with the contribution limits because they are campaign committees.  So they can’t accept more than $2,800 from any one individual per election, so that would be $2,800 for the primary and $2,800 for the general.  They can’t accept more than $5,000 from a political action committee.  They can accept – they can accept assistance from their political parties – again, within limits – and they have to disclose, as I said, on a monthly basis, all the money that they’re taking in, all the money that they’re spending, and itemize it.  And anything that is over $200 they have to itemize coming in and going out.  Those are the – those are the basic rules.  They have a lot of flexibility about how they can spend the money in terms of what they think will help to advance their campaigns.

I do want to be – I should have mentioned this before.  I do want to be clear that what the – when we talk about these billions of dollars that are being raised and spent, it’s being spent on advertising, it’s being spent on staff, it’s being spent on travel.  We do not have a big problem with vote buying in this country.  So I would not want anyone to walk away from this thinking, “Well, with all those billions of dollars floating around, there’s – there must be a lot of money changing hands in connection with the election.  People must be getting paid off to vote.”  That is not a big problem in our country and I think it is discouraged by our transparency system, because they have to account for all the money that comes in and all the money that goes out, and there isn’t a lot of room in there for just kind of money to be hidden that’s being handed out to voters, and that’s – that is not something that we have a big problem with here.

MODERATOR:  Any more questions in person?  We’ll do one more question from our American Spaces and then call it.  “Do other countries that you know of have similar agencies or regulation of campaign financing, and how do they differ from the FEC?”

MS WEINTRAUB:  Well, that’s a big question.  I mean, I’m not – I’m not in a position to give a treatise on every other campaign finance system in the world.  I know there are many countries that have a system of public financing.  We kind of have a system of public financing but, frankly, the laws are out of date.  They are obsolete and therefore they’re not being used by any of the major candidates anymore.  Other countries have a more robust public financing system.  There are other countries that have spending limits.  As I said, we don’t have spending limits, but other countries do.  Contribution limits and source restrictions are also something that is reasonably common amongst other democracies, and I think pretty much everybody has a law against foreign contributions.  Nobody wants to have their election influenced by people from outside the country.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Well, once again, I want to thank Commissioner Weintraub for coming to the Foreign Press Center for a second time.  We always love having her and hope she’ll come back again.  Thank you guys for coming out as well.  Feel free to visit our website, fpc.state.gov, if you want to see more of our elections coverage, and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.  Thank you for coming.

MS WEINTRAUB:  And please go to fec.gov and – because we’ve got a lot of great information about money and politics in our elections that you can find right there on our website.

MODERATOR:  Super interesting website.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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