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Unrestricted spending in the 2012 elections has created tantalizing openings for advocates of overhauling the campaign finance system, but it’s also fueled a rush of competing remedies that might complicate attempts to rewrite the rules.
In theory, the 113th Congress presents a golden opportunity for proponents of a fix. Polls show voters are more disgusted than ever with big money in politics. Republicans hit by outside ad attacks are starting to join in calls for change, and new progressive players are mobilizing to put pressure on Capitol Hill.
But the one rules change that most attracts Republicans is the one that good government watchdogs reject out of hand: raising the contribution limit on candidates and political parties. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told CQ Roll Call he was interested in campaign finance changes, then flagged “revisiting the federal fundraising restrictions” as a key place to start.
“It’s almost incredible to me that anyone would suggest that the solution to this is to simply raise all limits on everybody,” said Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., author of one of three house bills that would, in one form or another, offer matching public funds to candidates who collect low-dollar donations. Reps. John B. Larson, D-Conn., and John Sarbanes, D-Md., have introduced similar bills.
But Price and his allies said their GOP colleagues are looking at political money through fresh eyes. Lawmakers in both parties faced millions in attack ads bought by unrestricted and often secretive outside groups in the recent elections, the first presidential contest since the Supreme Court deregulated political spending in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
“I’ve heard privately from a number of Republican colleagues that they’re appalled at the way the money is sloshing around,” Price said. Sarbanes agreed, saying lawmakers are spending time raising money that they would prefer to spend on legislation and building relationships with colleagues.
“I think there’s a recognition that the system the way it currently exists is unsustainable over the long term, and people are more willing to look at solutions,” Sarbanes said.
But which solution? Voters and lawmakers eager for a change face a dizzying array of options, some so ambitious it’s hard to picture them succeeding. Close to a dozen states and more than 350 municipalities have called for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United ruling, and 125 members of Congress have introduced bills in the same vein.
A new grass-roots group called Represent.Us this month unveiled a sweeping overhaul package dubbed the American Anti-Corruption Act that includes strict new limits on super PACs, curbs on lobbyist fundraising and a $100 tax rebate that voters could give to their favorite candidates, parties or political committees.
“It’s time for another bold, audacious proposal that goes beyond the conventional range of debate and actually implements the comprehensive change that is required, that reflects the gravity of the crisis,” said Josh Silver, director of the Represent.Us campaign and CEO of the advocacy group United Republic.
There’s also the campaign finance transparency bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act, that congressional Democrats are determined to revive despite their inability to win a single GOP vote in the Senate earlier this year. For backers of a campaign finance overhaul, the act is the first order of business. They’re pinning their hopes on Republicans, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have signaled openness to new disclosure rules.
“We’re going to get disclosure in the 113th Congress one way or another,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. His group plans a news conference in December to call on President Barack Obama to replace five out of six Federal Election Commissioners whose terms have expired. Organizers will also be pushing for shareholder disclosure rules at the Securities and Exchange Commission and for IRS action to curb political activities by non-disclosing tax-exempt groups.
To Price, the many competing proposals and players do not dilute efforts to rewrite the political money rules.
“I don’t think there’s any problem at this point with a lot of discussion, a lot of proposals being floated,” he said. “I think it’s in fact healthy and a sign of energy that there are a number of members and groups in the game.”
Still, advocates of a political money overhaul acknowledge that their campaign will reap more fruit if they unify around a single goal. They are negotiating with Price, Larson and Sarbanes in hopes of bringing the three lawmakers behind a single bill that would match small donations with public money.
“It would make a stronger case on the Hill if people were working from the same page,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center. “That’s not always easy, and I don’t know how quickly we will get there.”
If their proposals reach too far and wide, the self-described “reform lobby” might end up empty-handed. They do have one thing on their side: time.
“We are at a point now where we have a system of great excess and a system that is going to lead to scandal and corruption,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said. “And that is the context in which major reforms have been enacted in the past and can be enacted in the future.”