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With both parties awash with cash, maybe campaign reform isn’t so quixotic

Republicans may need to rethink their knee-jerk opposition to HR 1

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt at a news conference Wednesday to oppose the House Democrats’ government overhaul package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt at a news conference Wednesday to oppose the House Democrats’ government overhaul package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — After months of polls, focus groups and strategy sessions, Michael Bloomberg came to the obvious conclusion — unlimited money cannot buy a presidential nomination in 2020.

Yes, the news stories talked about competition from Joe Biden and the difficulty that a moderate would have in surviving the Democratic primaries. But Bloomberg implicitly conceded that even a billionaire’s bankroll would not be enough to dominate simultaneous March 3, 2020, primaries in California and Texas.

It wasn’t too long ago that Republicans like Mitch McConnell were convinced that super PACs, created in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, would create a permanent GOP majority on Capitol Hill.

Well, not exactly. While outside spending mattered in a limited number of 2018 Senate races like Florida, for the most part, Republican super PAC moneybags such as the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson were matched by Democratic megadonors like Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

On the House side, trying to repel a wave election with super PAC money has proved as futile as King Canute trying to hold back the tides.

The largest super PAC of the 2018 cycle, spending more than $135 million on behalf of the Republicans, was the Congressional Leadership Fund, closely aligned with then-Speaker Paul Ryan. Given the GOP failures in 2018, maybe the group should be renamed the Congressional Minority Leadership Fund.

With congressional races becoming more nationalized with every election cycle, the partisan allegiance of voters matters far more than money in races in which both candidates have raised a credible amount.

In theory (and please emphasize the word “theory”), the current level of rough financial parity between the two parties should make legislators open to fair-minded campaign reform proposals.

After all, any congressional incumbent who actually enjoys spending more than a dozen hours per week calling strangers and begging for campaign money has a weird sense of fun, even by Capitol Hill standards.

In similar fashion, the dominant role played by super PACs often means that candidates lose control of their own campaign message. The priorities of free-spending billionaires like, say, Steyer pushing impeachment can take precedence over more targeted political appeals by the candidates themselves.

Also watch: McConnell rips Green New Deal price tag — cheaper to buy every American a Ferrari

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For the Republicans too?

All this brings us to the Democrats’ far-reaching campaign reform, voting rights and ethics bill — HR 1, or the For the People Act — being debated on the House floor this week. While the legislation is virtually certain to pass the chamber on close to a party-line vote, its fate after that is on par with The Charge of the Light Brigade.

McConnell, whose Senate career is based on short-term political gamesmanship, holds one abiding principle — a passionate hatred of campaign reform. Small wonder that HR 1 has about as much chance of making it to the Senate floor as a drive to reinstate Prohibition for Kentucky bourbon.

But stripped of the overheated partisan rhetoric on both sides, there are elements in the campaign reform package in HR 1 that could appeal to the self-interest of Republican congressional incumbents as well as Democrats

(Here I have to pause for a disclosure statement: I am a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, which has testified in favor of the For the People Act. I want to stress that I had nothing to do with the testimony or any legislative advocacy by the Brennan Center. We now resume our normal programming.)

Campaign commercials, even those that run on TV at 4 a.m., are in the public arena and subject to full disclosure. But, as was sadly evident in hindsight in 2016, what happens on Facebook stays hidden on Facebook. That’s a problem that HR 1 tries to fix. It is hard to see why any candidate, fearful of stealth attacks, would object to the proposal extending current disclosure requirements for TV ads to major online platforms.

Years of partisan deadlock and unfilled vacancies have turned the six-member Federal Election Commission into the regulatory version of a zombie movie. HR 1 offers a formula to constitute the FEC as an effective agency. And, trust me, there are no principled arguments against the government being able to write regulations to enforce its own laws.

If super PACs offer no lasting partisan advantage to either side, why do politicians allow them to dominate campaigns because of a lack of enforcement from the toothless FEC? The sad truth is that super PACs have taken on many of the roles of political parties (from TV ads to door-to-door canvassing) with none of the accountability to candidates that the RNC and DNC offer. HR 1 would severely limit the kind of campaign ads that super PACs could run in political years.

Money matters

Even in private, Republicans are probably recoiling from a key provision in HR 1 allowing congressional candidates, after hitting a $50,000 threshold, to get $6 in federal matching funds for each dollar they raise in small contributions.

For all of the predictable GOP screams about federal subsidies for Democrats, there is enough money sloshing around politics ($5.7 billion was spent on 2018 congressional elections) to lavishly fund all candidates in most competitive races. While the 6-to-1 matching formula in HR 1 is probably set too high, there is a strong argument for creating a system under which incumbents in both parties would be able to legislate instead of soullessly dialing for dollars.

The realities of campaign finance have dramatically changed in the past decade, but we’re locked in age-old arguments. While nothing lasting is going to happen before the 2020 election, we are nearing that post-Mitch McConnell moment when Republicans might rethink their knee-jerk opposition to all forms of campaign reform.

Walter Shapiro  has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.