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Bernie Sanders is pushing Hillary Clinton to care about money in politics

Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton takes time to meet supporters and take photos at the Annual Hawkeye Labor Council AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic on September 7, 2015, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Democratic Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton takes time to meet supporters and take photos at the Annual Hawkeye Labor Council AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic on September 7, 2015, at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
David Greedy/Getty Images

Just in time to beat Bernie Sanders to the punch, Hillary Clinton released a comprehensive campaign finance reform plan Tuesday aimed at reducing the influence of wealthy interests and boosting the power of small donors.

The ambitious three-tiered proposal calls for overturning the Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for unlimited spending on elections, creating a small-donor matching funds program for presidential and congressional candidates, and using the power of the executive branch to force greater disclosure of campaign activity by corporations and nonprofits.

"Our democracy should be about expanding the franchise, not charging an entrance fee," Clinton said in a statement. "It starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and continues with structural reform to our campaign finance system so there’s real sunshine and increased participation."

The timing, depth, and content of Clinton's plan show that she's got one eye cast toward Sanders, who has gained ground on her in polling of the Iowa caucuses and taken a substantial lead over her in New Hampshire. Sanders, who first introduced a constitutional amendment that would pave the way for reversing Citizens United in 2011, was expected to introduce a bill providing for public funding of presidential and congressional campaigns as early as Tuesday. Because Clinton's plan focuses on small-donor matching, it leaves room for Sanders's bill to be more expansive.

But Clinton's plan goes further than Sanders's in the important category of things a president could actually accomplish. That's because neither a constitutional amendment nor simple legislation setting campaign finance restrictions is likely to be considered as long as Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress.

What Clinton says she would do

The best way to think about Clinton's proposal is Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, all of which could be set in motion at the same time.

  1. Plan A — Courts and the Constitution. Reverse Citizens United through the appointment of justices who are hostile to the decision or through the adoption of a constitutional amendment that would explicitly allow Congress to pass campaign finance laws without abrogating the First Amendment.
  2. Plan B — Congress. Create a new optional multiple-matching fund program for congressional and presidential candidates. Borrowing an idea used by New York City, Clinton would establish a federal program for matching the donations of small contributors at a two-to-one or better ratio. Candidates would have to show viability to be eligible for the program, and they would have to agree to a lower cap on contributions from a single donor. Clinton did not specify the matching ratio, the caps on overall spending for the program or on contributions from a single individual, or the threshold at which a candidate could qualify for matching funds by demonstrating viability. Clinton's campaign also said she would push for Congress to require outside groups to disclose donors who support significant political expenditures and disclose significant transfers of money among outside groups.
  3. Plan C — Executive power. The smallest piece of Clinton's proposal may be the most significant, because it involves actions a president could actually take. She would prod the Securities and Exchange Commission to disclose all political spending to shareholders. She would also sign an executive order requiring more disclosure of political activities by companies that contract with the federal government.

Like most campaign finance reform plans, this one is defined more by the difficulty in accomplishing its major goals than by the goals themselves. But it does show that Clinton is paying serious attention to Sanders, and that the issue has moved closer to the front burner for Democratic presidential candidates.