In the months after Election 2016, a newly energized opposition took to heart the old maxim, purportedly still valid, that the most effective way to sway your representatives in Washington is to call their offices. But there are good reasons to question whether inundating staffers with calls actually has any impact. And as the Republican-led federal government pursues even unpopular aspects of its agenda, some groups are looking for greater influence.
In that vein, a partnership of liberal-minded activists started a crowd-funding effort tied directly tied to a particular vote expected to be cast by Susan Collins, R-Maine: To confirm Brett Kavanaugh (or not) as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Seeking to avoid criminal liability under federal anti-corruption laws, the coalition is not offering the money raised to Collins. Instead, it’s promised the funds to her future (and as yet unknown) opponent, but only if she votes to confirm. If she votes no on Kavanaugh, the group will simply refund all the donations. So far, they’ve raised over $1 million.
That’s one way to get your senator’s attention, but it might be the wrong kind of attention: Collins says the scheme is illegal bribery. Ethics experts interviewed by The Washington Post agreed it wasn’t a good look but split on whether the plan actually broke the law.
The most interesting thing about the crowdfund is that it is explicitly designed to influence Collins’s vote via nothing but the disbursement of cold, hard cash. It’s a proposition we typically would not hear in public.
Collins’s team is certainly aware that controversial positions can be deployed as fundraising tools during campaigns. If Collins voted to confirm and then an opposition group began soliciting contributions – “donate to replace Collins with someone who won’t confirm anti-Roe judges, like she did with Kavanaugh” – it’s doubtful anyone would even think to raise the prospect of corruption. Similarly, if liberal groups raised non-refundable contributions for Collins’s 2020 Democratic opponent by saying that “Republicans are poised to install a fifth anti-choice justice on the Supreme Court” or because Collins “is still saying she might vote to confirm,” no one would bat an eye. But making distribution of funds exactly as uncertain as a vote that hasn’t happened is what sounds exactly like bribery.
Still, UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen says that, because the money won’t be given to a “public official” (i.e. Collins) under any scenario, the charge has no merit. “So long as the Supreme Court is going to keep the money spigot open for wealthy donors, some of the rest of us appear to be at least trying to pool together resources to attempt to fight back,” he wrote for Slate.