The Rise of Outside Money and Congressional Dysfunction

As Rick Hasen noted, I have a forthcoming article in The Election Law Journal, with Mike Norton, which empirically shows that the rise of outside money in elections has made governing more difficult.  When outside groups become bigger players, relative to the political parties and candidates, this foments greater tensions and conflicts within the legislative caucuses of both parties.  I wanted to say a bit more about that article, to make its technical findings more broadly accessible and to put them in context.

For several years now, I have been arguing that political fragmentation within both parties is a major element in why governance in America has become more difficult.  By fragmentation, I mean both that power has flowed away from the political parties to other groups, and also that political leaders have less ability to bring their members along to make difficult deals.  While the overwhelming focus of commentary has been political polarization, this fragmentation – on top of polarization – is an underappreciated but highly significant aspect of why Congress has become so dysfunctional.

I have also suggested, along with others, that the rise of outside money – starting with the McCain-Feingold law, followed by Citizens United – is one of the forces driving this fragmentation within the parties.  But our article is the first, as far as I know, to document this fact empirically.

We also interviewed a number of former high-ranking Democrats and Republicans to get their perspective on this issue.  I wanted to share here some of what they said — 

Former NRCC chair Tom Reynolds (2016):

Citizens United and other changes—McCain-Feingold—those  guys  that  campaigned  and wanted very badly to create McCain-Feingold have actually created a party that has less money, less resources, and have enabled outside groups to have enormous presence in campaigns.”

Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Martin Frost (2016):

“McCain-Feingold’s worthless. Took money away from political parties and forced it to the fringes. I talked to campaign finance advocates at the time. I said, ‘Don’t you understand you’re going to be harming political parties.’ And some of them said, ‘Well, we don’t like political parties anyways.’ And then I said, ‘Well, don’t you understand if you take the soft money away from political parties, where it has to be disclosed’—we had to disclose every single dollar that I raised to the DCCC from corporations and unions and large contributors— ‘’you’re going to force it out to the wings, out to the extremes, some of whom don’t have to report.’”

Former DCCC and Democratic House Caucus Chair Vic Fazio (2016):

‘‘[Then president of the Heritage Foundation] Jim DeMint has got more power at Heritage Action [their PAC affiliate] than he did as a second-line Senator from South Carolina. Members run in fear of not having any ability to control the environment in which they are running.’’

Former DCCC Chair Martin Frost (2016):

‘‘Members live in fear of a well-financed, well-organized minority in their own party taking them out. The way you avoid that is not to work with the other side.’

Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA-03) (2016)

“If you’re a candidate and you have a group that is supporting your candidacy, whether they’re supporting you or opposing your opponent, they can come out with any message they want to and you don’t have anything to say about it. You can deny. You can say you don’t agree with it, but after seeing it on TV for seven weeks—typically people don’t listen to a policy and so it makes it extremely hard.”

Rep. Tom Coleman (R-MO-06) (2016):

Coleman characterized the interest groups as too shortsighted and focused on votes that were irrelevant because a majority had already been reached. ‘‘Then you have to go out and defend that vote because of how it’s been characterized. A lot of them are one-issue people, which you can’t please all the people all the time. You can’t please your best friend or your spouse with your votes. It’s impossible.’’  

Former NRCC and House Oversight chair Tom Davis (2016):

Current or former moderate Republican members noted it has become harder to govern when the more ideological members in the party refuse to cooperate with leadership because they are bolstered by outside influences. Tom Davis saw it as an expectations problem. ‘‘When you get one-party government, there’s always that tendency to go overboard. When you don’t, you see what happens. Republicans control the Congress. They don’t control the president, and their base is so upset they turn to Trump, because these guys are doing nothing. You produce Ted Cruz and the Tea Party.  All of a sudden, you cannot fit the rising expectations.”

Former NRCC staffer Bob Holste (2016):

‘‘If you’re a pissed off whatever—you know, a hedge fund guy and a member of Congress pisses you off, you can now shove a million dollars up their ass and never have it show up in a report anywhere, but people know exactly who pissed you off.’’

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