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GOP Credibility on Reform Down for the Count

Rhetoric is is often at odds with actions on the issue of money in politics.

  • Jonathan Backer
July 19, 2012

Senator John McCain recently introduced legislation to provide “better reporting and disclosure” to address “ineffective oversight” that “continue[s] to result in scandals, controversies, unethical practices, [and] a lack of trust.” This problem, he argues, stems from the fact that “a powerful few benefit greatly from the current system of patchwork compliance and enforcement.”

Is McCain reasserting his leadership on the problem of unlimited and undisclosed money unleashed by Citizens United?  Is he committed to fighting the “major scandals” that will stem from unprecedented levels of spending?

Sadly, no.  His bill tackles the endemic problem of fraud and corruption…in professional boxing.

With respect to campaign finance reform, McCain is absolutely nowhere. On Monday and again on Tuesday, he joined his caucus in filibustering the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, arguing that the bill’s high disclosure threshold of $10,000 shields unions from disclosure. Setting aside the merits of his criticism, McCain has made no effort to work with the authors of the bill or to offer alternative solutions.

McCain is far from the only politician whose rhetoric is at odds with his actions on the issue of money in politics. This week, the Romney campaign unveiled a new attack on President Obama, accusing him of “crony capitalism” for awarding big donors and bundlers with federal appointments and taxpayer dollars. The accusation is not inaccurate. The Center for Public Integrity finds 68 of 350 Obama bundlers have spent time in the administration, and 30 have ties to businesses awarded or seeking federal contracts.

But the Romney campaign’s critique rings rather hollow. Even if a hypothetical President Romney awarded bundlers with appointments or contracts, the public would have no way of knowing. Unlike all other recent presidential candidates, Romney will not disclose the names of his bundlers. Indeed, the only Romney bundlers that are publicly known are registered federal lobbyists, who are legally required to disclose their fundraising. By contrast, the Obama campaign refuses to accept money raised by registered lobbyists. Speaking Monday as a surrogate on the topic of “crony capitalism,” Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli could not even identify if Romney had a position on the DISCLOSE Act. These are not the hallmarks of a candidate who is remotely serious about campaign finance reform.

House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa provides another recent example of campaign finance Tartuffery. He recently sent a letter to all of the members of President Obama’s cabinet asking for information about their appearances at events of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting Obama. The questions, the committee said, are meant to assess “whether government funds have been used for travel to and from these events.” Though the attested willingness of Cabinet Secretaries to appear at super PAC events raises serious questions about potentially illegal coordination between ostensibly independent committees and candidates, no Obama administration officials except for senior advisor David Plouffe, has ever appeared at a Priorities USA Action event. By contrast, Mitt Romney himself has appeared at a fundraiser of Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting him.

If Issa were truly concerned about the blurry line separating candidates and the super PACs supporting them, perhaps he would investigate the Federal Election Commission, which has deadlocked on advisory opinion requests seeking guidance on the issue of coordination and independence. In one such decision, which the Colbert Report lampooned, the FEC could not even reach consensus on a request from Karl Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, asserting the position that candidates should be able to appear in its campaign ads without running afoul of the coordination prohibition, even while acknowledging that such ads would be “fully coordinated with incumbent Members of Congress.” Surely the failure of the FEC to enforce the plain meaning of federal law and the English language deserves more scrutiny than the non-appearance of Cabinet Secretaries at super PAC fundraisers.

Lack of leadership afflicts both political parties. By rejecting presidential public financing in 2008, President Obama dealt a lethal blow to an already beleaguered program, and he has shown no inclination to revive the program. Earlier this year, he reversed course and embraced Priorities USA Action, ending his opposition to super PAC support. On the Republican side, the recent attention paid to money in politics is a good thing. But Republicans must show that their commitment extends beyond political gamesmanship if they wish to be seen as credible partners in reform.