How 2020 Democrat Steve Bullock plans to drive big money out of politics

Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock on Monday said he would unilaterally shake up the country’s campaign finance system if elected, promising a set of immediate executive actions to increase transparency and reduce the influence of wealthy donors.

None of Bullock’s proposed actions would require approval from a divided Congress, though the Montana governor said he would be open to working with lawmakers on sweeping legislation similar to the kind he signed into law in his home state. Taken together, they amount to some of the most aggressive proposals yet from a Democratic White House hopeful to take on big-money outside groups.

“You can take meaningful action immediately as both an executive and working with Congress to make sure people know that elections are about them, not the special interests or the outside spending,” Bullock said in an interview with McClatchy.

Bullock said he would issue an order on his administration’s first day to require companies with federal contracts to disclose all political spending, even if the contributions are made to a nonprofit group not legally required to reveal its donors before the end of the campaign. The proposed executive order mirrors action taken by Bullock in Montana last year.

“I’m not going to tell you you can’t spend in our elections, but you do have to disclose every single dollar that you’re spending to influence those elections, either spending or contributing,” Bullock said.

The governor also said he would re-institute an Internal Revenue Agency rule the Trump administration revoked last year that requires some nonprofit groups to disclose its donors. And he said he would use the Department of Justice to scour the country looking for cases that, if successful in court, could reduce the breadth of the Citizens United decision.

He described such an effort as a counter-weight to efforts by some conservative lawyers who strategically and successfully pushed to further de-regulate campaign finance laws in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling.

“Why the heck couldn’t you ask your solicitor general to do the same thing, and say, ‘You know what, let’s find the cases out there that are substantially chipping away at the Citizens United decision,’” he said. “And there’s no reason you couldn’t do that.”

Bullock made clear he wouldn’t use the IRS to aggressively pursue nonprofit groups suspected of being primarily focused on political activity, a controversy during President Obama’s administration that conservatives said unfairly targeted them.

“The IRS shouldn’t be picking either winners or losers or choosing who to scrutinize,” Bullock said.

The promises are part of Bullock’s emphasis on campaign finance reform in the early stages of his 2020 White House bid, which he officially launched last week. He hopes appeals to Democratic voters who want sweeping changes to the nation’s political system.

Many of Bullock’s rivals, most notably Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth, have also campaigned aggressively on driving big money out of politics. But the governor said he hopes voters are more impressed that he actually did so while in office.

“It’s something that unlike ... others, I actually have a record meaningfully impacting not just Montana, but beyond,” Bullock said.

Bullock made changes to campaign finance law a priority both as Montana’s attorney general and governor, signing legislation in 2015 that required all outside groups to disclose their donors if they wanted to run advertisements in the state in the run-up to an election.

Like most of his Democratic opponents, Bullock said he would not endorse a super PAC supporting him the primary or the general election. Asked if he would welcome the assistance of a group like Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that is planning tens of millions of dollars against President Trump this election cycle, he demurred.

“I’ll cross that bridge once I get there, only because I live in the confines of being a lawyer,” he said. “I’ve seen at time in Montana candidates very upset about the independent expenditure. You can’t even tell them what to do, because at that point it’s coordinating.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.