WASHINGTON — Throughout his campaign, Congressman-elect Rick Nolan devoted a chunk of his stump speech to decrying the new rules of running for office, especially the heavy emphasis on raising money.
Nolan has said he doesn’t remember raising more than a quarter-million dollars to wage races in the 1970s and ’80s, during his first tenure in Congress. He raised at least $1 million this year, but that’s a pittance, compared with the amount outside groups spent on his 8th District race this cycle.
“Successful members of Congress are expected to spend 30 hours a week in call time raising money,” he said. “And there is a clear relationship: Generally the ones with the most money get the most votes. We never, ever used to do that.”
When Nolan enters Congress in January, he plans to set forth trying to overhaul the way federal elections are run. Beyond overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a liberal rallying cry since the court opened the door to unlimited corporate or labor spending on elections in 2010, Nolan wants public financing for elections and to limit the length of election cycles.
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He’ll join a pair of Minnesotans in the congressional fight against big political spending, especially super-PAC money, but it’s probably a fruitless exercise; even good government activists say there’s unlikely to be any movement on campaign finance reform in 2013.
Super-PAC spending tops $1.4 billion
Nolan knows a thing or two about heavy political spending. The Chip Cravaack-Rick Nolan race in the 8th District was the third-most-expensive House race in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — outside groups spent $10.6 million in the 8th, and all but $1 million of that went toward negative ads.
The 8th was just a sliver of the overall picture, of course. From the presidential race on down, according to the Sunlight Foundation, outside groups spent $1.4 billion on the 2012 election, the first post-Citizens United presidential election cycle. In 2008, that number was $262 million.
Kathy Kiely, the managing editor of Sunlight’s reporting group, compared the spending to a “money bomb with a really long fuse,” since most of that money, an enormous $860 million, was spent in the last two months of the race.
“It’s hard to expect numbers of this magnitude,” Kiely said. “I think we all figured there would be an explosion of outside spending because of the new rules.”
Democrats fail to gain ground
Democratic members of Congress have tried to overturn those rules this session, but to no avail.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, co-chaired by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, made campaign finance reform one of its main goals this session. Ellison said the caucus has tried to build public sentiment against outside spending, working to push major city councils to pass resolutions calling for Citizens United’s repeal, as well as making it a part of the grass-roots candidate-vetting process.
“This is something that is absolutely not an inside Washington game,” he said. “This is something that will call on the energies of the people of rural America, urban America, suburban America, north, south, east, west, central.”
In April, members of the Progressive Caucus and other Democratic lawmakers signed a vow to unite behind any of the different Citizens United constitutional amendments lawmakers have introduced this session (including one from Ellison), though none has received a vote.
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In the Senate, lawmakers voted down a bill in July that would allow Citizens United-level spending to move forward, but with the caveat that there needs to be more disclosure about donors. The bill, called the DISCLOSE Act, was a watered-down version of legislation that fell one vote short of passage in 2010.
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a member of the Senate’s Citizens United working group and a co-sponsor of the bill, is realistic about the chances of passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling — “If you can’t get a disclosure bill, it’s really hard to foresee getting a constitutional amendment,” he said.
But the bevy of ads that came with the 2012 election should push lawmakers to look at the DISCLOSE Act again, he said.
“I think [lawmakers] have to look at how the American public sees it,” he said. “I would think the American public overwhelmingly dislikes Citizens United and would like to see at least disclosure.”
Reform faces obstacles
Irritated voters or not, there is very little reason to think anything dramatic will happen on campaign finance any time soon.
First, there is little to no Republican support for stripping Citizens United, or even requiring greater transparency — both times the Senate voted on the DISCLOSE Act, for example, it failed on a party line vote (“It was skins and shirts,” Franken said). Obviously, getting anything through a Republican-controlled House is going to require significant Republican support — and if Democrats want a constitutional amendment, they need to win support from three-fourths of the country’s state legislatures, as well.
Hoping for the Supreme Court to reverse itself is also unlikely, at least as long as conservative justices control the court. While some have voiced their support for increased transparency in the system, there’s no indication the five-member majority is interested in revisiting its decision in Citizens United as whole. When a direct challenge to the decision came to the court last session, justices dismissed it on a 5-4 vote.
Even if Congress or the courts are unable or unwilling to overturn Citizens United, Franken, Ellison and Nolan all said there should be a real push for more disclosure. Larry Jacobs, the head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said that’s not likely in the short-term, though it gives Democrats the chance to lay the groundwork for putting in place new regulations if they’re able to take back control of the U.S. House.
“That strikes me as the more practical line to pursue,” he said.
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The Sunlight Foundation has pushed Congress to require, at least, more transparency (the group is especially concerned about the $300 million in outside money spent by groups that don’t need to disclose their donors). But Keily said there isn’t likely to be big movement in the realm of campaign finance unless a scandal forces Congress’s hand.
“I think it’s going to take a considerable amount of political courage,” she said. “Everybody knows this is a problem, everybody knows this isn’t sustainable, everybody knows that this is a sick system. … Everybody knows that something has to be done, but everybody is afraid to take the first step because they’re afraid of being disadvantaged.”
As for Nolan’s other proposals — public funding for federal elections and a shortened election cycle — Jacobs said there simply isn’t any interest in Washington to make such radical changes to the way elections are run.
“We’re like 20 years past that now,” he said. “We’re in desperate times in term of campaign finance. … We’ve been there, done that. Now we’re in a whole new world.”
Nolan said he’s aware of the obstacles, but he said he’s going to take them in stride.
“I’ve been criticized in some respects for representing some kind of older, outdated way of thinking and doing things,” he said. “Well, guess what. That old way of doing things produced a whole heck of a lot better results. And it isn’t always a bad thing to go back to your foundation, go back to your values.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry