Catastrophe seemed imminent.
“In a certain real way, the republic is at stake,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
“We’re really stress-testing our democracy in a way we never have before,” said attorney Lawrence M. Noble.
The menace under the microscope? “Dark money” in politics.
But the doomsday scenarios played out one by one in a subterranean Capitol Hill hearing room that was far from packed, and Republicans were notably absent from the July event.
The event is a metaphor for Democrats’ larger battle against big and secretive political cash: lots of pomp, underwhelming circumstances.
Seizing on the specter of Russian election influence, they’ve ramped up their quixotic effort — with minimal effect — to blunt Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision that unleashed a torrent of special interest spending on U.S. elections.
In doing so, they’ve introduced two dozen bills related to money in politics. Some are aimed at increasing donor transparency, others are targeting massive contributions from special interests. A couple are intent on reforming the Federal Election Commission, the government agency charged with enforcing election laws.
None, a Center for Public Integrity analysis indicates, have had a single formal hearing, much less an up-or-down vote in either the U.S. House or Senate.
Related article: “Statehouses, not Congress, hosting biggest political money fights”
Election reform-minded Democrats are also hobbled by their party’s recent history. When they had opportunities during President Barack Obama’s first two years in office to significantly alter the American campaign finance structure through legislation, they didn’t.
And in a twist that’s infuriated acolytes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others, Democrats are following Republicans’ lead by raising millions of dollars in so-called “dark money” contributions, the origins of which are largely untraceable.
All the while, Republicans, who now control every branch of government, have expressed little interest in stanching the ever-increasing flow of big money into federal elections.
For his part, President Donald Trump, an early critic of big-moneyed interests, continues to pledge to “drain the swamp.” Swamp draining, however, doesn’t appear to involve political money matters, as Trump rarely addresses the issue these days. (Trump’s press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“Whether you like it or not, whether you believe in bipartisanship or not, if you don’t have a strategy to attract Republican votes, you’re just not going to win,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy for Issue One, a nonpartisan government accountability nonprofit.
As for the package of bills the Democrats have proposed, McGehee said: “It has zero chance in hell of going anywhere.”
Citizens United: a love-hate relationship
Federal-level campaign finance reform used to be something both Republicans and Democrats got behind.
Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which mandated reporting requirements of contributions and expenditures. And in 2002, Sens. John McCain, a Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Democrat, teamed up to champion the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which restricted soft money contributions to parties.
Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of reformist nonprofit Democracy 21, points out that legislation to close disclosure loopholes passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2000. Republican senators favored it 48-6.
A decade later, disclosure loopholes were again back before Congress following the Citizens United decision. But this time, every Republican senator voted against the bill. The DISCLOSE Act lost 59-39, one vote shy of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster led by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader at the time.
Citizens United changed the political calculus. Along with SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, it notably paved the way for the creation of so-called super PACs — turbo-charged political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of campaign cash from wealthy donors, corporations and nonprofits.
Several reform advocates said they believe Republicans want to preserve the post-Citizens United system because they’ve benefited the most from it.
They also wonder whether Democrats would actually push through reforms were they to control Congress again — particularly because many Democrats have taken full advantage of the fundraising freedoms Citizens United has granted them.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, for example, railed against Citizens United. But she, too, benefited from a small army of super PACs and millions of dollars in secret political money.
This summer, Democrats are asking supporters to fight against Citizens United. Their messages, however, amount to little more than opportunities for Democrats to collect supporters’ demographic information — and raise money.
In the 2016 election cycle, special interests spent at least $183.5 million in “dark money,” up from $5.2 million in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks political spending. Of that, “liberal” special interests spent at least $41.3 million, or 22.5 percent; “conservatives” spent most of the rest.
In all likelihood, “dark money” expenditures were higher because political nonprofits only have to report money spent within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., is the only Republican who has signed on to cosponsor a campaign finance reform bill this session that’s widely supported by Democrats. Jones said he has pushed for campaign finance reform for nearly three decades — and continues to do so despite his party’s general lack of interest.
Why? Because he believes money has too much influence in elections. Jones predicts it will take a major scandal, perhaps on the scale of Watergate, to prompt either party to reform the system.
“I’m not sure anyone in Washington wants to change it,” Jones said. “They talk about it but they don’t do much about it. Both parties benefit from the current system.”
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the nonprofit Public Citizen, said he believes Democrats are more serious about reform now than they were in the past.
But there’s a caveat.
“Any time a party is in control of the federal government, they tend to be not as enthusiastic about changing the rules of elections, because they’re winning,” Holman said.
Obama was “a big disappointment” to advocates of campaign finance reform, he said.
Obama knew how to work within the post-Citizens United framework, and he didn’t push for the reforms he championed on the campaign trail, said Holman and Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the nonprofit Common Cause.
“A lot of Democratic Party politicians believe in the legislation, but when push comes to shove and they seek the advice of their lawyers, they often back away or their support weakens,” Ryan said.
Obama’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said Democrats were busy juggling health care reform and climate change legislation when Obama first took office and Democrats had the majority in Congress, leaving little time for campaign finance reform.
Plus, some Americans’ anger toward and resentment of special interests hadn’t reached the fever pitch of today, Sarbanes said.
Nearly half of the people who responded to a Center for Public Integrity-Ipsos poll conducted last week said they opposed Citizens United, compared to 30 percent who said they support it. And 57 percent of respondents said they favor limiting the amount of money super PACs can raise and spend.
Raising money, or “dialing for dollars,” is quite time-intensive for members of Congress. Yet the public doesn’t seem to realize it.
According to the Center for Public Integrity-Ipsos poll conducted last week, 58 percent of respondents believe congressional members spend 10 hours or less a week fundraising. But members, on average, spend 20-to-30 hours per week fundraising, according to research by Issue One.
“Campaign finance reform appears to be one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on, with a majority in both parties coming out in support for limits on super PACs and increased transparency on nonprofit donors,” said Chris Jackson, vice president of public affairs at Ipsos.