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Blogs / Influence

How Whitehouse Became Campaign Finance Reformer

October 3, 2012

A version of this story appeared in National Journal Daily

With lawmakers campaigning and the threat of fiscal ruin awaiting them on their return, the window of opportunity to address campaign finance reform that opened briefly this summer is closing for the 112th Congress.

Efforts to change the system established by the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision foundered amid partisan sniping, and rekindling talks this fall seems unlikely. Republicans blocked the Disclose Act twice in the Senate, and the House has not indicated it will take up similar legislation. The legislation would require political groups to publicize the names of donors who give $10,000 or more.

Even so, a new generation of campaign finance reformers, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has taken up the cause. The issue, as Whitehouse sees it, is the overwhelming corrupting influence that outside money is having on elections. So far this cycle, super PACs have accounted for nearly $300 million out of $589 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That compares with just under $200 million in outside expenditures for all of 2008.

Whitehouse has become a sort of heir to former Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who worked with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the issue. Whitehouse says he became the point person on reform "probably because [Sen.] Chuck Schumer was too senior and had too much going on in other areas."

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