Any notion that the debate over two competing campaign finance bills in the House was primarily about philosophical principles was undercut Wednesday as sharply partisan arguments for and against each measure spilled into the open.
House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) held a markup of legislation to subject so-called 527 organizations to the same laws as other political committees, after promising the bills’ sponsors last week that he would send their bill to the floor despite his disinclination against its merits.
But Ney nonetheless used the hearing as an opportunity to put Democrats on the defensive for their support, whether tacit or acknowledged, for political groups who last cycle managed to operate outside laws that ban the use of soft money to influence federal elections.
On a screen in front of the dais, Ney flashed mug-shot-style pictures of individuals who ran Democratic-leaning 527s last cycle and delineated their previous and implied current ties to the Democratic Party. In a town where alluding to individuals rarely involves actually naming names, Ney decided to name some: Harold Ickes, Jim Jordan, Zack Exley and Minyon Moore.
Seemingly caught off guard, panel ranking member Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) objected to the focus on Democratic-leaning 527s and their well-known operatives.
“Weren’t there some Republican groups that came together?” she asked.
Ney curtly responded that he assumed Millender-McDonald would have taken care of creating visuals to illustrate various the GOP-leaning 527s’ ties to the Republican Party.
Democratic committee member Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) shot back with a thinly veiled threat of her own. Lofgren challenged Ney’s tactics and implied that the Ohio Republican did not want to go down that road given that Ney’s former chief of staff and press secretary, Neil Volz, joined Jack Abramoff’s now-infamous lobbying operation in early 2002.
“You have to have factual proof of knowledge and action, not just that someone once worked for someone,” she said, explaining that she could make the same guilt-by-association assumptions he was making.
Ney shot back that he didn’t automatically assume Lofgren was tied to Saddam Hussein when her former press secretary was indicted last year on conspiracy charges that she acted as a paid intelligence agent for Iraq.
The debate wasn’t always personal, but it was nearly entirely political in tone. Reflecting that was the party-line vote to send the bill out of committee, with Republicans voting for and Democrats voting against. An amendment to the legislation proposed by one of its sponsors, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) also passed with GOP panel members voting for and the minority voting against.
Shays’ amendment ensured that 527s that are engaged in entirely state election activity would not be required to register as federal committees even if they conducted get-out-the-vote efforts, so long as those campaigns did not mention federal candidates. As originally drafted, the bill would have exempted registration activities for the same but not the GOTV drives.
Even though the vote was 5-3 to send the bill out of committee, it was sent to the floor without a recommendation for passage.
Campaign finance observers have speculated that Ney is sending Shays bill, cosponsored by Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), to the floor for the express purpose of forcing Democrats to vote on something. The elected leadership of the Democratic Caucus recently came out against a competing provision by Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Al Wynn (D-Md.) without expressing support for Shays-Meehan instead.
Pence-Wynn was sent to the floor earlier this month without the support of any Democrats on House Administration.
For his part, Wynn has defied much of his party in supporting a bill that critics say would roll back many of the campaign finance reforms of the past three decades. He almost mocked his party’s leaders in the House in a “Dear Colleague” letter last month, telling his fellow Democrats that to vote against his bill would relegate them to a permanent minority party in the House.
Wynn sent another letter Wednesday that went even further in its raw partisan reasoning for why Democrats — who provided most of the support three years ago for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — should turn around and vote for his bill.
In the missive, titled “10 Reasons Democrats Should Support Pence-Wynn,” the Maryland Democrat tried to appeal to their partisan self-interest by asserting that dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are already too high and destined to go higher without the increased revenue he believes his bill will bring to the DCCC; Democrats helped enact BCRA and are still in the minority; and his bill would increase PAC contribution limits from $5,000 to $7,500, allowing lawmakers to raise more money.
A few of his arguments run contrary to Ney’s presentation about Shays-Meehan, however. While Ney implied a direct connection between those who run Democratic-leaning 527s and the party itself, Wynn said, “We cannot even talk to the 527s. Therefore, the money goes in and we have no influence over which Congressional races they get involved in or whether they get involved at all.”
Wynn concluded by asking, “Are we the Democratic Party or merely functionaries with decisions made by the Shadow Party of 527s?”
If Ney is to be believed, Democrats are in a quandary: continue their legislative support for keeping soft money out of federal campaigns, as the Shays-Meehan bill would do, or decide that the independent political groups can continue to operate outside of the current campaign finance system and instead loosen the restrictions on the political parties, as Pence-Wynn seeks to accomplish.
The House Republican leadership has already tacitly endorsed the Pence-Wynn approach. By sending Shays-Meehan to the floor, where it now awaits action along with Pence-Wynn, Ney is seemingly forcing Democrats to make a choice.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Ney said.