What McConnell Can Do to Improve Elections

What McConnell Can Do to Improve Elections

By Jason Grumet - December 19, 2014

Few would describe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a “party animal.”  He and President Obama have yet to have their much discussed drink together; the mere act of smiling became an issue in his recent campaign; and McConnell’s election night celebration was described as history’s rowdiest Presbyterian Church mixer.  But when it comes to respecting and protecting the critical role of the political parties, McConnell leads the way. 

A confluence of decisions over the last decade have significantly weakened the role of political parties and empowered the super PACs, 501(c)(4)s and a variety of other mechanisms that pour vast sums of largely unaccountable resources into our elections.  In the just-passed spending bill, McConnell led an effort to lift limits on so-called “soft money” controlled by political party committees. Explained McConnell: “It would strengthen the parties, who have frankly not as much clout anymore. Much of the firepower is now outside the parties.”  Leveling the political giving field between the parties and independent political committees addresses one part of the problem.  Now Sen McConnell should join with Justice Antonin Scalia and Congressional Democrats in requiring that all political giving be disclosed.

The competitive advantage of super PACSs over parties has arisen from a “perfect storm” among campaign finance legislation and Supreme Court decisions.  McCain-Feingold established significant limits on the ability of parties to raise political money while Citizens United obliterated the limits on everyone else.  Since passage of McCain-Feingold, total spending on federal campaigns has exploded from $3 billion in 2000 to some $7 billion in the 2012 presidential cycle.  During this period, national party expenditures have diminished slightly and state party resources have declined by almost half.  Some argue that leveling the playing field between parties and outside groups will result in even greater campaign spending.  Others, like me, believe the more likely outcome will be to shift resources away from the independent groups.  Even if the truth is some combination of the two, our democracy will be well served by enabling the comparably accountable and responsible political parties to reassert a larger role in our elections. 

While total expenditures have skyrocketed in the shadow of McCain Feingold and Citizens United, the transparency of those donating and spending this money has plummeted.  FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub admitted after the last election that its $7 billion spending figure was just an estimate, because “it’s really hard to come up with ‘the number.’” In other words, through a well-intentioned effort to constrain the system, America completely lost control.
The descent into “dark money” has driven troubling results, starting with the growing viciousness of political advertising.  Researchers at Wesleyan University determined that out of a staggering 1 million campaign advertisements in the 2012 presidential campaign, over 700,000 were negative.  What is surprising is the correlation between the tone of the ads and the source of the funding.  Ads by candidates were evenly split between negative and positive.  But commercials by outside groups were a chilling 90 percent negative.  And the biggest surprise:  Ads by party committees were 90 percent positive.  It is fair to assume that the positive character of party ads was due in part to the overwhelming hostility of the third-party expenditures, but the point is clear -- people are less likely to be vicious when they might be required to defend their behavior.
Unfortunately, politicians are having to expend resources and effort defending themselves not just against their opponents but this tone-deaf, unwelcome and often anonymous “assistance.”  Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett lamented, “Now you get these terrible ads claiming to support you, and you either have to spend your own money repudiating people who think they support you, or keep your mouth shut and look like a bitter partisan.”
McConnell deserves credit for championing the benefit of strong political parties.  But to effectively achieve this goal, he must also support a level playing field on campaign finance disclosure.  Under current law, parties must disclose all contributions but many independent committees must not.  To move forward with an effective and equitable system, all campaign giving must be subject to disclosure requirements and the entire system must be strengthened to ensure that the information in available in real time. 

Unlike most campaign finance requirements, there is little question that disclosure requirements are constitutional.  Six months after deciding Citizens United, Justice Scalia wrote, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”  The current system encourages a nation of professional political cowards.  With no financial disclosure and names like Citizens for a Working America, Local Voices, Texans for America’s Future, and We Love USA, it is impossible to discern the interests or motivations behind the advocacy of many independent political organizations.

Upon taking over as majority leader, McConnell will have the opportunity to take the next step to strengthen our parties and improve our elections. It will not be easy to convince the Republican caucus to support effective disclosure requirements, but as a real “party animal,” Sen. McConnell is the leader who can get this done.

Jason Grumet is the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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