Watching outside groups spend millions on the midterm elections has been a nightmare for a slew of campaign spending “watchdog” groups who fiercely advocated for legislation called the “Disclose Act” that would have restricted such spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Now, with Republicans poised to take back control of the House, it appears the lame duck session — after the election, but before its newly elected members take power — is their only chance.
Republicans aren’t making a priority of changing the status quo. “Uhm, no,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel when asked if Republicans are planning their own version of the Disclose Act.
California Republican Rep. Dan Lungren is poised to chair the key House committee that will oversee the issue. In a recent interview with the Sacremento Bee, Lungren said he favored loosening current restrictions on campaign finance spending, not tightening them further to reverse the impact of the Citizens United decision.
Campaign spending critics are fearful of Lungren’s tenure. Campaign Legal Center’s David Vance called Lungren’s remarks to the Bee “a little bit disturbing.”
Democrats, meanwhile, blasted the GOP for its stance in defending the new Citizens United order. “It’s disturbing, but telling, that Republicans want to keep secret from the American people what special interests are acting as patrons of their campaigns,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said.
With hostile Republicans en route to a House majority, the lame duck will be the critics’ last hope – at least until the 2012 elections.
Vance said the watchdog groups have discussed with Democrats on Capitol Hill passing a scaled-back version of the bill that would feature only its disclosure requirements.
“There’s been a lot of discussions…nothing was set in stone,” Vance said, noting that the election is “chewing up everybody’s focus” away from legislative proposals.
However, pushing a campaign spending bill in the lame duck will pose its own challenges.
Insiders say it’s difficult to foresee what the mood in Washington will be after Republicans make major gains on Nov. 2. Will Democrats be fearful of flaunting the public’s repudiation at the polls? Or will Democrats, with wounds fresh from thousands of negative television ads, come back determined to slay the outside money beast?
Further complicating the issue is that Democratic opposition to the campaign spending is rooted at least in part in political expediency.
First, the outside spending has offset the money advantage Democrats held heading into the election, which relied on more traditional funding mechanisms that tend to favor the incumbent party.
Passing the Disclose Act, and stemming the tide of the new spending ground rules, could have kept Democrats on top, spending wise.
Second, Democrats have relied on the spending issue as political theater – an attack line they hope is working to dampen Republican enthusiasm.
The Disclose Act, “with its special provisions for unions, was never intended to be a fair piece of legislation – it was always a blatant political fix for the Democrats,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, the most high profile outside group to spend millions – and defend such spending – to help Republican candidates this cycle.
So how deep will Democrats’ commitment to reform be when the election is done with?
Campaign Legal Center’s Vance placed his hope in public “disgust” with the millions of dollars pouring into congressional races across the country.
Some polls support this notion: a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed 72% are concerned that outside groups are not required to disclose their donors.
Vance went as far as to say Lungren could be convinced to change tack. “You never know,” Vance said.
Another possible shift is that Democrats may find ways to exploit the new spending ground rules to their advantage, as the parties tend to leapfrog over one another in finding new, innovative ways to bend campaign spending rules in between elections. That would give Republicans an incentive to come to the table with the traditionally left-leaning watchdog groups.
Lungren’s view is to loosen restrictions on donations to candidates, while increasing transparency so voters can follow the money.
“You’re going to have money flowing, and I would rather have the money flowing to the candidates,” Lungren told the Sacramento Bee. “You’d still have a lot of money, but (donors) would be identified with the party and with the candidate.”
American Crossroad’s Collegio said, “In the end, what’s most important is to have campaign laws and regulations that apply equally to all groups – left, right and union – and don’t favor one set of groups over another and most critically, which don’t get changed in the middle of the election cycle because one side is perceived to gain an advantage.”