Nebraska Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh didn’t mince words two years ago when asked about the demise of his state’s 20-year-old law on campaign finance. “Good riddance,” he said after the state Supreme Court overturned the law.
His problems with the old law, then and now, were twofold. First, he says, it had the practical effect of driving money to third parties and away from the candidates themselves.
“With the candidate, there is at least some responsibility for what is being said; you can’t say that so much with third parties,” notes Lautenbaugh, a seven-year veteran of the Unicameral Legislature who will leave office after this year due to term limits.
His second concern was that the law — which provided a public subsidy to Nebraska candidates who agreed to a campaign spending limit and whose opponent exceeded it — violated free-speech protections as well. This same constitutional argument is behind a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have reshaped election systems not only in Nebraska, but several other Midwestern states.
As Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice puts it, the nation’s highest court has been on a “deregulatory tear.”
Not all legislators, like Lautenbaugh, are saying “good riddance” to old rules that had sought to “level the playing field” in campaigns or limit spending and contributions.
But nearly everyone can agree that a new era in campaign finance began with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United decision. It has continued with rulings such as one earlier this year in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission.