Members of the Federal Election Commission tend not to agree on much, but a few weeks ago, the six members of the nation's top watchdog agency for election laws came together on one provocative point: The FEC voted unanimously on May 6 that recurring contributions through prechecked boxes should be banned.
As part of this declaration, the commission specifically asked Congress to protect the public and prospective donors by strengthening the campaign-finance system. Yesterday, as NBC News reported, a group of senators answered the call.
Senate Democrats introduced legislation Monday to ban political campaigns from prechecking recurring political donation boxes after a number of former President Donald Trump's supporters complained that they'd been duped into contributing more than they'd intended to. [...] The bill would require contributors to consent to recurring charges and require political committees or campaigns to inform donors about how to cancel recurring contributions.
The lead sponsor is Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign-finance laws and the administration of federal elections. As of this morning, the bill -- the "Rescuing Every Contributor from Unwanted Recurrences" Act" (RECUR Act) -- has seven co-sponsors: six Democrats and an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
That list may yet grow, but if Republicans refuse to support the measure, it suggests the bill may not survive a GOP filibuster.
For those who may need a refresher on how we arrived at this point, the New York Times first reported last month on Trump's 2020 political operation and the brazenly underhanded tactics it employed to swindle its unsuspecting donors. As we've discussed, the tactics and the scope of the scam were breathtaking.
To recap, the Times found that Team Trump set up a default system for online donors: by adding easily overlooked pre-checked boxes and opaque fine print, the then-president's operation was able to fleece unsuspecting donors for months. Not surprisingly, banks and credit card companies were soon inundated "with fraud complaints from the president's own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars." Some donors even canceled their cards just to make the recurring payments to Trump stop.
The Republican was presented as a politician who was effectively fleecing his own supporters, and while the former president didn't like the reporting, he also didn't contest any of its specific details.
The original article added that the tools Team Trump relied on are being "exported ... across the Republican Party, presaging a new normal for G.O.P. campaigns." Indeed, we learned around the same time that the National Republican Congressional Committee was relying on similar tactics, "deploying a prechecked box to enroll donors into repeating monthly donations — and using ominous language to warn them of the consequences if they opt out."
Just as the former president's operation relied on pre-checked yellow boxes with provocative fine print, the NRCC this month also turned to pre-checked yellow boxes with provocative fine print. A Times' report added, "Those donors who do not proactively uncheck the box will have their credit cards billed or bank accounts deducted for donations every month."
In fairness, it's important to emphasize that all kinds of entities -- party committees, activist organizations, non-profit groups, et al. -- do fundraising that often includes recurring contributions through pre-checked boxes. It happens on the left, right, and center.
What made Trump's and his party's tactics unusual was the predatory nature of their tactics. The specific tool may be relatively common, but Republicans' efforts to hide and intimidate stood out for a reason.
The National Republican Congressional Committee's donation page read last month, for example, "If you UNCHECK this box, we will have to tell Trump you're a DEFECTOR & sided with the Dems. CHECK this box and we can win back the House and get Trump to run in 2024." All of that text is bolded. Below it, in text that isn't bold, the box added, "Make this a monthly recurring donation."
The appeal came on the heels of a different recent NRCC fundraising pitch with a similar pre-checked yellow box. "If you want Trump to run for President in 2024, check this box," it read. "If we flip 5 seats and the House RED, Trump says he'll run. Uncheck this box, we lose."
Trump didn't actually say this, of course. The National Republican Congressional Committee simply wanted to separate its supporters from their money.
With the FEC's blessing, Klobuchar's bill would curtail the predatory practices. Watch this space.
* Update: The above text originally said that the FEC can't unilaterally alter federal election laws, which isn't accurate. The post has been corrected accordingly.