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Activists Brace for Fight Over Campaign Finance Law

Some GOP lawmakers have already introduced legislation that would remove the candidate-contribution caps

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, right, and Arizona Sen. John McCain at a Sept. 20 press conference on military aid to Israel. Cruz wants to reshape campaign finance law in the next Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, right, and Arizona Sen. John McCain at a Sept. 20 press conference on military aid to Israel. Cruz wants to reshape campaign finance law in the next Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A newly empowered Republican Party has at least two years in Washington to overhaul everything from the tax code to border security.

Will it also make major changes to campaign finance law?

The issue has received little attention since last month’s election. But activists on both sides say they are preparing for big fights over how candidates and parties are allowed to collect and spend money, legislative battles they see as almost inevitable given the GOP’s control of the White House, Senate, and House.

Key Republicans, in fact, have already begun laying the groundwork to dramatically reshape campaign finance laws: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina said last month that they will introduce legislation next year that would let a single donor contribute as much as he or she wanted to the candidate of their choice.

The bill would erase caps — which currently limit donors from giving more than $2,700 to individual general election candidates — that have existed since 1974.

Even its supporters acknowledge that such a sweeping overhaul faces long odds of congressional approval. But major changes, experts and advocates say, are now more likely to come through the legislative process than at any time since 2002, when Congress approved the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (known as “McCain-Feingold”). 

“We recognize that there may well be battles ahead, and we are going to fight them every step of the way,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that seeks to limit the influence of big-dollar donors.

The potential action on campaign finance law comes against the backdrop of deep dissatisfaction in both parties with the current system. 

The Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — along with a series of other court rulings and actions by the FEC — allowed for the creation of so-called super PACs, which unlike candidates and parties, can collect uncapped contributions.

Show us the money

Super PACs have since become a staple of modern campaigns, with many of the most important ones raising hundreds of millions of dollars while playing a key role in House, Senate, and presidential races.

But their rise has upset Republican and Democratic leaders alike, who say they have reduced the power of candidates, and even the major parties, in favor of unaccountable third parties who control these groups. And activists who want to lessen the influence of big checks in politics say they’ve effectively rendered the contribution caps meaningless if donors can simply write a million-dollar check to someone else.

The bipartisan dissatisfaction has some conservatives arguing that changes that once seemed unthinkable — like eliminating caps on contribution limits for candidates — is now the only logical choice.

“A lot of people who may like the idea of contribution limits are saying, ‘What the heck is the point?’” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group that opposes most restrictions on how candidates and parties raise and spend money. “A lot of people don’t see much difference between making a contribution to a super PAC backing one candidate and making a contribution to a candidate directly.”

Keating’s ideological foes laugh off his suggestion, arguing that the GOP legislation would make a bad situation worse. But tapping into anger with the status quo is how Republican lawmakers are trying to gather support for their legislation — Meadows and Cruz have labeled their legislation the “Super PAC Elimination Act of 2017.”

Their bill would also mandate disclosure of donations larger than $200 within 24 hours (many donations are currently not reported until months after they’re made), a nod to transparency that could entice some traditional opponents to get on board.

Keating said he doubts the Meadows-Cruz legislation will get past a Democratic-led filibuster in the Senate. But he is hopeful that smaller changes — such as raising the contribution limits, pegging them to inflation, or increasing the amount of “coordinated money” that parties and candidates can spend together — could make it through.

‘A lot of nonsense’

The system itself needs an overhaul, he argued.

“There’s years’ worth of crap that needs to be removed,” he said. “Because it’s just a lot of nonsense that’s in the law.”

The prospect of facing GOP-led campaign finance legislation is a bitter one for Democrats, who watched for years as the courts decimated a system that tightly controlled how money could be raised and spent on electoral politics. As recently as the presidential campaign, Democrats had campaigned on appointing a judge to the Supreme Court who would overturn the Citizens United decision, hopes that have since vanished with the election of Donald Trump.

Meredith McGehee, a strategic adviser at the Campaign Legal Center, said she expects she and allies will be playing a “ton” of defense in the coming years.

“There’s going to be a lot of testing the water by those who believe … having unlimited money sloshing around in the system is the change that needs to be made,” she said.

McGehee said she is heartened by at least one development: Trump’s promise to rid the political system of moneyed special interests. The resonance of that message helped elect the Republican nominee, and might have, McGehee hoped, encouraged even GOP lawmakers to embrace populist-style reforms.

“At one moment, I think, ‘Oh my God, what the hell is going to happen?’” she said. “And at the other, I’m actually pretty hopeful. I’m hopeful this is a Nixon-to-China moment.”

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