In its haste this week to restore provisions of the Patriot Act, the Senate inadvertently gutted key parts of recent changes in campaign finance law, suddenly leaving the names of big donors exposed to public scrutiny and restoring strict limits on the amount and the manor of fundraising that can be done by candidates.
The Senate’s blunder forced the temporary expiration of the Citizens United decision, which prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation, and the McCutcheon decision, which had invalidated aggregate contribution limits as violating the First Amendment.
Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, urged the Senate to act to undo “this attack on our democracy and our candidates’ security,” citing the threat to groups like American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, and MoveOn, and the grave risk it exposed Americans to.
“Crossroads GPS and other super PACs around the country continue to plot political and personal attacks and lavish unseemly sums on the campaigns of their favorite candidates,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement. “Anyone who is satisfied with letting this critical part of our elective process go dark isn’t taking their role as citizen seriously enough.”
The Senate’s misstep – largely blamed on another miscalculation by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader - also infuriated many of the presumed and declared presidential candidates who see the Senate action as a direct threat to their fundraising hopes.
“There is no evidence, not a shred of evidence, that Citizens and McCutcheon has done anything but make for a more open, more competitive electoral process and to level the playing field for all candidates,” said Jeb Bush, among the early frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination. “I’m astonished at this irresponsible act of the Senate.”
“We depended on these benefits to survive,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who announced his candidacy for president this month. “As president, I’ll gladly do what it takes to save these super PACs and big donors who once saved me and my family.”
Mr. McConnell, still bitter about his recent battle over provisions in the Patriot Act, compared his critics to Monday morning quarterbacks who have forgotten they don’t play on Sunday.
“I remain determined to work toward the best outcome possible for the American people under the circumstances,” he said. “This is where we are, colleagues — a Senate-passed bill with some serious flaws, and an inability to get a short-term extension to improve that bill. So whose fault is that?”
Mr. McConnell’s assurances seemed to do little to quiet the concern of lawmakers and presidential candidates.
“Little by little, we’ve allowed our freedom to slip away,” presumed GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker said during a campaign stop in Kansas.
Many of Mr. McConnell’s Republican Senate colleagues were visibly angered by his stumble as well, choosing to meet an hour before the Senate session on Thursday without their leader for a strategy session on how to move forward in a suddenly fundraising-unfriendly environment.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who sparred with Mr. McConnell as he tried to force his way into the private session, said later that Mr. McConnell was not fit for the majority leader post.
“I’ve said on many occasions that I believe he would be the worst candidate we could put forward,” Mr. McCain said. “But I never imagined he would be this unsuitable for the leadership position.”
Even as senators were trickling into the Capitol, Mr. McConnell attempted to extend some aspects of the old campaign finance laws. He asked senators to consider a two-week continuation of the old rules, allowing spending on candidates to continue as before and to give lawmakers a chance to reverse the legislative mistake. But his fellow senators declined, prompting Mr. McConnell to denounce them from an empty Senate floor, criticizing what he called “their campaign of demagoguery and disinformation.”
Charles G. and David H. Koch, the influential and big-spending conservative donors, and Karl Rove, the co-founder and adviser to American Crossroads, issued their own dire warnings in recent days about the perils of letting the new campaign finance law stand and demanded immediate approval of a new bill to give the super PACs and super donors the tools they need to continue to protect Americans’ democracy and freedom.
In a statement issued Friday, the trio called on the Senate to “ensure this irresponsible lapse in our authorities is as short-lived as possible.”
“The American people and the family of Lindsey Graham and every other right-thinking candidate,” they wrote, “deserves nothing less.”
Philip Maddocks writes a weekly satirical column. He can be reached at pmaddocks@wickedlocal.com.