In Congress, A Showdown Over Campaign Money So far this year, proponents of tougher campaign finance laws have been on a losing streak. They have two big bills they still hope Congress will vote on this summer -- though both face opposition.
NPR logo

In Congress, A Showdown Over Campaign Money

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128619101/128636950" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Congress, A Showdown Over Campaign Money

In Congress, A Showdown Over Campaign Money

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128619101/128636950" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There have been some adjustments recently to campaign finance laws, and those who favor tougher restrictions have been on the losing side. The federal courts rolled back restrictions on campaign spending by interest groups and the Supreme Court has given the OK to corporations that want to play politics. NPR's Peter Overby reports that those who advocate tougher spending laws have put their hopes in two bills before Congress.

PETER OVERBY: One of the bills is a direct response to the Supreme Court decision. It would mandate disclosure of corporate and union money in election campaigns. Democrats have been working on it since January, when the High Court ruling came down and the White House, among others, predicted a flood of corporate political spending. That flood hasn't hit - at least so far.

Mr. KEN GROSS (Attorney): There are opportunities there that the corporate community is interested in exploring.

OVERBY: Ken Gross is a Washington lawyer who advises corporate clients on campaign finance law.

Mr. GROSS: I expect to see spending evolving by the fall. I don't know that it's going to overwhelm people. But I think we're going to see specific instances where trade associations, funded by corporate interests, are going to start to move into this space in a meaningful way.

OVERBY: The disclosure bill passed the House in June. But in the Senate, it faces the familiar hurdle of a Republican filibuster.

Here's Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): This bill isn't about preserving any principle of transparency. It's about protecting incumbent Democratic politicians.

OVERBY: Nobody knows if the bill can get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. Then again, this is an election year, so either way, its fate will be an issue.

Craig Holman, a political-money analyst with the liberal group Public Citizen.

Dr. CRAIG HOLMAN (Legislative Representative, Public Citizen): Put all senators on a roll call vote. Put their name behind if they oppose or support opening the books on money in politics, because voters do indeed care about this.

OVERBY: And meanwhile, there's this perky little issue ad popping up in several markets.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man: Wall Street gets a bailout. We don't. BP destroys the Gulf. We pay the price. Congress keeps putting special interests first. Why? Isn't it obvious? Campaign money - billions of dollars of it. That's why...

OVERBY: It's promoting a bill to provide public financing for congressional elections - a system that's been adopted in several states but has always been rejected by Congress. One hundred fifty-six House members are co-sponsoring the bill. Outside groups have raised millions to advertise and they've organized advocacy campaigns in 24 states.

The lead co-sponsor is Congressman John Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. He says that politics nowadays isn't so much about candidates or issues, it's mainly about money.

Representative JOHN LARSON (Democrat, Connecticut): How much money have they raised; how much cash do they have on hand? You know, that is the fundamental test.

OVERBY: Larson hopes to see the bill voted out of committee this month, and brought to the House floor in September. Getting a Senate vote on it before Election Day would be a long shot, to say the least. Still, Larson likes the vision of Congress without the perpetual money chase.

Rep. LARSON: It would change the culture. Now there's no question about it.

OVERBY: But here's the rub with public financing: Do voters want to pay for congressional campaigns, or see the costs added to the national debt?

Sean Parnell thinks not. He's the president of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics. He says that those he calls "the so-called reformers" have simply come to a dead end.

Mr. SEAN PARNELL (President, Center for Competitive Politics): And for them, the lack of success is simply evidence of, well, they need more so-called reform - they need to keep doing the same thing that they've been doing, for 40 years, that has not worked. And I think that a lot of people are starting to question them.

OVERBY: Even as many continue to question the ties between Congress and big donors.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.