For decades, conservative attorney Jim Bopp has fought on the front lines of a regulatory war over how political campaigns are financed.
As a staunch proponent of deregulation, Bopp has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on multiple occasions, including during the 2008 Wisconsin Right to Life v. Federal Election Commission ruling that overturned the ban on corporate-funded issue ads ahead of an election — what federal regulators call “electioneering communications.”
The Terre Haute, Indiana-based lawyer was also involved with the landmark Citizens United v. FEC ruling, which overturned the ban on corporate-funded advertising that explicitly calls for the election or defeat of political candidates. This year, he’s advising Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal as Jindal weighs a 2016 White House bid.
Bopp recently talked with the Center for Public Integrity about political corruption, the 2016 presidential election and the proliferation of super PACs and nonprofits in politics. Among his assertions: the current campaign finance system is broken and liberal campaign finance reform advocates tend to act like Communists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Center for Public Integrity: In an ideal world, what is needed to combat political corruption and prevent people from gaming the system?
Bopp: You have to have as few rules as possible, and those rules need to be vigorously enforced. If they are not enforced, they are pointless.
Center for Public Integrity: Do you think the number of people trying to game the system has increased in recent years?
Bopp: No, there are always corrupt people, and they will always try to game the system. The more rules there are, the more opportunities they have to do that … This is the reason the Soviet Union collapsed — because of all the rules on the economy that people were flaunting with black markets and bribes and everything [else] to get around all these rules. And, of course, the response by the Communists — just as the response by campaign finance reformers — always is more rules.
Center for Public Integrity: How would the 2016 presidential race be different if candidates could accept unlimited amounts of money or higher amounts of money?
Bopp: They wouldn’t need to set up six or eight different organizations to raise money. They would have one … [Now] your last option is a candidate committee because it is the one that has the most severe contribution limits of all the potential options.
Center for Public Integrity: These other groups — such as super PACs and nonprofits — can’t be controlled by the candidate, but they can be operated by allies.
Bopp: It’s obviously a friend or an ally. I’ve found it impossible to get your enemies to set up organizations to support your campaign. The only people who are willing to support your campaign are people that support you. Isn’t that shocking?
Center for Public Integrity: What sort of boundaries or lines do those groups have to worry about?
Bopp: Each has their own unique set of rules, and you just have to make sure that you follow those. It’s a very complex dance now … And it requires very sophisticated legal advice. It advantages the rich and the sophisticated, but all these rules always do. The more rules, the more money it takes, the more sophistication it takes to navigate them.
Center for Public Integrity: Is there a level of anonymous money in the process that would be concerning to you?
Bopp: It’s really pretty hard to get anonymous money effectively into a campaign … I am concerned about the system generally right now because it has been distorted, and it has been rendered so non-transparent and non-accountable.
Center for Public Integrity: What about political spending by so-called “social welfare” nonprofits that are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code — where it’s unclear where the money is coming from?
Bopp: If it’s a (c)(4), you’ve got to spend half your money on activity that has nothing to do with the election. If your intent is to affect the election, half of the money is wasted. And not very many people are willing to waste half of their money.
Center for Public Integrity: Looking at the current landscape, some regulators have proposed restricting the political activities of certain nonprofits.
Bopp: If the current [vehicles] are attacked so that [their effectiveness and utility] goes down, then other ones will be used … There are organizations that I have already thought of that haven’t yet been utilized very much.
Center for Public Integrity: Like what?
Bopp: You’ve got to pay me for that. But there are several that I’ve already figured out how to utilize if that becomes necessary.
Center for Public Integrity: Do you think we’ll see LLCs or other corporate forms become more politically active?
Bopp: Only ones with unique profiles that are really, in effect, just a particular person’s vehicle. It’s almost unheard of for any for-profit corporation with customers and employees and investment bankers doing anything like that. As soon as you start involving all them, then the willingness to take political stands goes down dramatically.
Center for Public Integrity: Where do you see regulators or lawmakers going in the right direction right now?
Bopp: Before the last election, there were 13 states that raised or eliminated contribution limits. And that’s continuing because that is the source of all these problems. It’s the source of the incentive to look for other organizations or means to participate — which then results in the campaign finance reformers playing whack-a-mole.
Center for Public Integrity: How hopeful are you that this Congress would consider raising campaign contribution limits?
Bopp: What would be the point of doing something in Congress? [President] Obama’s going to veto it. What would be the point of that exercise?
Center for Public Integrity: Well, certainly in the states, there have been some politicians on both sides of the aisle that have supported raising the limits.
Bopp: No question. Democrats in some states have been the ones who have proposed and passed it. In Illinois, as an example, a very clever way was figured out by them to completely eliminate contribution limits. That means the vast majority of the money goes to the candidate. And you can vote for or against the candidate based on who is supporting them. You can’t vote against a super PAC.
Center for Public Integrity: In your mind, how long until the entire system reaches a tipping point?
Bopp: We have reached the tipping point! It’s utterly unaccountable and non-transparent. And it’s all because the rules have made them so … This is a downward spiral until the whole system collapses, which it is very close to. The effects of contribution limits have so distorted the system that we have almost zero accountability and transparency.