It’s easy to see why Michael Steele’s days as chairman of the Republican National Committee may be numbered.
The financial controversies dogging the embattled RNC chair refuse to go away. Having weathered one scandal after another over dubious expenditures, high overhead, and sloppy bookkeeping, Steele now faces questions over a pre-convention spending spree. The RNC’s paid more than $630,000 getting ready for its 2012 convention in Tampa, The Washington Post recently reported -- fully 18 times more than its pre-convention tab at this point four years ago.
(Steele, who’s been laying low these days, could not be reached for comment.)
What’s harder to grasp, though, is why anyone would want to succeed Steele as head of the RNC. Whoever takes over will face $15 million in debt, a decimated major donor base, and a network of impoverished state party committees. Even worse, new political money rules place the national party committees -- both the RNC and the Democratic National Committee -- at a decided structural disadvantage.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in January ushered in a big money free-for-all for non-party groups, including trade associations, unions, and corporate-friendly nonprofits. Such groups may now raise and spend oodles of previously-banned corporate and union treasury money on elections, often in secret. The GOP-friendly PAC American Crossroads and its partner nonprofit, Crossroads GPS, for example, pulled in more than $70 million during the midterm campaign.
But the national party committees still face the same old contribution limits and disclosure requirements. For major donors, particularly corporate contributors reluctant to anger shareholders or consumers, secretive outside groups look a lot more appealing. The party committees “absolutely got the short end of the stick” in the Citizens United ruling, said Brett Kappel, counsel to the government relations group at Arent Fox.
Candidates lining up to replace Steele at the RNC acknowledge the problem. All four speakers at a recent Washington panel organized by RNC conservatives stressed the need to bring major donors back to the national committee. Official and unofficial candidates at the panel included Saul Anuzis, former chair of the Michigan GOP; Gentry Collins, ex-RNC political director; former RNC chair Mike Duncan, who heads the American Crossroads board, and Ann Wagner, who previously co-chaired the RNC and headed the Missouri GOP.
“There are people out there -- average Americans -- who want to not just invest their time in a conservative movement or party, but they want to invest their treasure,” said Wagner in an interview. “I want it to be with the Republican National Committee.”
Wagner pledged to usher in a new era of transparency and accountability at the RNC. She’s issued a multi-part agenda that includes imposing internal controls, modernizing accounts payable, slashing overhead, scrutinizing outside vendors and consultants, and creating a code of ethics for RNC staff.
“You must be open and transparent with people,” said Wagner, former ambassador to Luxembourg.
Collins, who quit the RNC last month, also has called for a management overhaul. In a blistering memo when he stepped down, Collins assailed the RNC for allowing “its major donor base to wither,” wasting money on overhead and neglecting the state parties. A recent RNC counter-memo challenged what officials there called “baseless accusations” leveled at the committee.
Anuzis, for his part, has pledged to be a “tenacious fundraiser” and return to the “nuts and bolts” work of boosting voter turnout. Duncan’s message to conservatives last week: There’s too little money in politics, not too much.
Many Republicans agree, and have launched a push for still more deregulation to strengthen the parties. Twice in the last two years, RNC officials have gone to court to challenge existing rules, without success. So far the courts have turned back RNC challenges to both the ban on raising soft (unlimited) money for party-building expenses, and to the limits on party-coordinated campaign expenditures.
But Republicans aren’t done, election law experts agree, and the next big battleground will be a fight over contribution limits. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who’s in line to chair the House Administration Committee, is on record saying that existing limits on contributions to both candidates and political parties should be thrown out. Hearings may be in the offing.
“There is a new movement afoot, especially among those who defend the party committees, to lift or eliminate the contribution limits,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Reform advocates will fight such a move on Capitol Hill, said Holman, who argued that party contribution limits, at $30,400 per year, are plenty high.
The real problem for the parties, Holman argued, “is the fact that they have to disclose the sources of their funds.” Conservatives have also set out to roll back disclosure rules, of course, but courts have so far rebuffed those attempts as well.
Still, Holman acknowledged that the post-Citizens United era threw the parties on defense during the midterms: “In many campaigns, outside groups were far more significant than party committees -- and, in many cases, the candidates themselves.” That means that the next RNC chair, whoever it turns out to be, will be saddled with a handicap even before the game begins.
E-mail Eliza Newlin Carney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/elizarules.