Democrats are vehemently opposed to big money in politics, right?
You would certainly think so, listening to the hue and cry that erupted from the left following the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The decision struck down a restriction on individuals’ ability to donate to an unlimited number of candidates and party committees.
Here’s House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi:
With the McCutcheon decision, the Supreme Court has chosen to pour even more money into our process and our politics. This decision only serves to widen the floodgates of special interest spending, eroding the sacred American doctrine that it is the voices of the people, not the bank accounts of the privileged few that should determine our elections and our policies. Our founders risked their lives, their liberty and their sacred honor to create a democracy – a government of the many, not a government of the money.
But given the party’s recent history, the Democrats’ outrage is a little, um, rich. It wasn’t long ago when Democrats were fighting Republican efforts to limit the role that big donors play in politics.
In the 2004 election, Democrats proved vastly more successful than Republicans at raising money through 527 groups, which are independent political committees that can collect donations of any size. For every dollar that Republican 527 groups raised, Democrats raised four -- giving them a $237 million spending advantage. George Soros, who contributed $27 million to 527 groups supporting John Kerry’s candidacy, became to Republicans what the Koch brothers now are for Democrats: Public Enemy No. 1.
After the 2004 election, Republicans found campaign finance reform religion and proposed limiting donations to 527 groups to $5,000, the same as the cap on political action committees. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner supported the bill, which was part of a package of lobbying and earmark overhauls, saying in a joint statement that it “demonstrates Republicans are serious about moving real reforms that help restore the trust between the American people and their government.'' The George W. Bush White House issued a statement endorsing the bill, declaring that “The President has repeatedly called for an end to abuses of the nation's campaign finance system through the use of 527 organizations.''
Campaign finance reform advocacy groups like Common Cause, Democracy 21, and Public Integrity lined up to support the bill, while Democrats stood with conservative groups -- like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform -- to oppose it. A spokeswoman for Pelosi, then the House minority leader, said that she “does not personally support additional restrictions on 527 contributions." The bill passed the House along party lines, 218 to 209, before dying in the Senate, where Republican Senator John McCain waged a lonely fight for it.
When the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in 2008, they did nothing to rein in political spending by wealthy individuals. Even after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Citizens United -- blamed for all sorts of problems it didn't cause -- the Democrats, still in control of Congress, passed no campaign-finance reform bill.
Democrats in Washington favored unlimited donations when it benefited them. Now that they are losing the fundraising race to Republicans, they decry such donations.
It’s a classic case of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” And it’s a perfect illustration of how, in Washington, all policy is secondary to politics.
Liberals who are up in arms over the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision ought to redirect some of their outrage to their representatives in Washington.
(Francis Barry is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board.Follow him on Twitter at @fsbarry.)
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