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The Urgency of Fixing Campaign Finance Laws The Urgency of Fixing Campaign Finance Laws

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NJ Daily / campaign 2012

The Urgency of Fixing Campaign Finance Laws

Money Roll(iStockphoto)

photo of Reid Wilson
July 19, 2012

There’s nothing quite like a mother’s love. In one House campaign this year, that saying is proving quite literally true. And it spotlights the bizarre, convoluted, and unfortunate state of campaign finance rules after a decade of legislating and the subsequent court fights that have challenged those laws.

In Washington’s 1st Congressional District, which stretches from the Seattle suburbs through rural Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties to the Canadian border, four major Democratic candidates are vying for a spot on the November ballot. One of those candidates, former state legislator Laura Ruderman, is benefiting from a super PAC that is running advertisements against the front-runner. The sole donor behind those ads: Margaret Rothschild, a wealthy donor who lives in a neighboring district—and who happens to be Ruderman's mother.

While Ruderman's campaign insists there was no coordination—her campaign manager told The Seattle Times that the candidate was “shocked” to discover her mother's connection—Rothschild still plays a major role in her daughter's campaign. She’s even featured in Ruderman’s first paid advertisement, in which the candidate says her drive to protect President Obama's health care law is personal because so many members of her family have been touched by cancer.


The district leans Democratic—our friends at The Cook Political Report give it a Partisan Voting Index score of D+3, meaning it's gone 3 percent more Democratic than the rest of the country in recent presidential elections—but it takes in some of the Republican-leaning areas once held by Reps. Jay Inslee and Rick Larsen, both moderate Democrats. (Inslee resigned and is running for governor, while Larsen is running in the more Democratic 2nd District).

In other words, it will take the right Democrat to win the seat. Darcy Burner and Suzane DelBene, two former Microsoft employees who have run for Congress in a neighboring district before, are the best-financed candidates in the race. State Sen. Steve Hobbs, a more centrist Democrat, has support from the editorial board of The Seattle Times, the most widely read newspaper in the district. The super PAC ad blasts DelBene, the candidate who has attracted support from Larsen, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, and most of the state’s Democratic establishment.

There is nothing illegal about the super PAC spending money on advertising. And there’s nothing wrong with Ruderman using her mother in an ad; it’s a key part of her biography and she’s establishing a reason for running. But it spotlights the one regulatory hurdle that frustrates both sides when dealing with campaign finance law—the ban on coordination among various political groups.

Campaign finance law prohibits direct coordination between a party organization like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the National Republican Congressional Committee and a candidate’s campaign, beyond a limit of $85,000. Party committees may spend up to that amount in direct coordination on their favored candidates. Any amount beyond that must be spent through an independent expenditure wing, walled off from the coordinated wing of the party apparatus.

That means, in effect, that the heads of the party committees spend two years traveling the country raising money, but they must then hand that money over to staffers who don't directly report to the boss to spend on advertising and polling during the critical final stretch before Election Day.

The prohibition leads to a sort of wink-and-nod operation by party strategists. The coordinated side will frequently add raw footage and research documents it would like to see in advertising to hidden sections of various websites, knowing full well that the independent side will take the hint and find it (The Rothenberg Political Report’s Nathan Gonzales has the best rundown of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans).

Campaign finance law is yet another debate in which the two parties are miles apart. But there’s surprising bipartisan agreement on coordination. The drivers of the debate on Capitol Hill believe coordination between campaigns and super PACs shouldn't be allowed, but that coordination with party committees only makes sense.

“It’s ... absurd to say that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee couldn’t spend every penny it’s got in one race if it wants to, in direct coordination with the candidate,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a recent interview. “Now, what the party committees have to do is transfer the money to outside entities and then have no contact with them at all. And these outside entities, completely independent of the entity that transferred them the money and the candidate they may want to help or hurt, are out there on their own. I think that’s a good law with regard to outside groups—you know, 527s, and 501(c)(4)—they shouldn’t be allowed to coordinate, because that is independent advocacy.”

Former chairs of the DSCC and DCCC agree. The first version of the Disclose Act, the campaign finance reform measure authored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and backed by Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Chuck Schumer of New York—the current DSCC chair and her two predecessors—would have reformed the manner in which coordinated spending with party committees is regulated.

The Disclose Act fell one vote short in 2010. This week, Democrats brought up another version of the bill that dealt with disclosure alone; it failed twice in a two-day period.

Something has to give. After the McCain-Feingold legislation was passed earlier this decade, McConnell and his allies backed several successful legal challenges to the law’s key provisions, culminating in twin court decisions— v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC—that have allowed more money to flow into politics. But the Federal Election Commission itself is mired in partisan deadlock, and even two years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the commission still has outdated regulations on its books.

That’s an untenable situation, one that lends uncertainty to campaigns themselves. Some campaign finance lawyers have begun bringing challenges before the FEC, knowing full well the commissioners will deadlock, and taking the lack of a clear answer as permission to engage in newer tactics that push the limits of legality.

Someone has to win, whether it’s McConnell's view that campaign giving represents free speech or Van Hollen’s vision of further disclosure. Without a final resolution, one that will stand up in court, the campaign finance system will further devolve into the kinds of feigned non-coordination that takes the power away from campaigns and their candidates and hands them to outside actors.

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