Sen. McCain huddles with Democrats on new campaign finance reform proposal

Sen. John McCain is talking with Democrats about a joint effort to require outside groups that have spent millions of dollars on this year’s elections to disclose their donors.

McCain (R-Ariz.), once Congress’s leading champion of campaign finance reform, has kept a low profile on the issue in recent years. 

He raised the ire of many Republicans a decade ago for pushing comprehensive reform, and many Republicans still held it against him during his 2008 presidential campaign. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Good-government advocates who worked with McCain in the 1990s and early 2000s had begun to think he’d given up on the issue. But McCain said Tuesday he could join Democrats once again to form a bipartisan coalition, even though it would annoy the Republican leadership.

“I’ve been having discussions with Sen. [Sheldon] Whitehouse [D-R.I.] and a couple others on the issue,” McCain told The Hill. 

McCain said he wants to ensure the legislation is balanced to cover labor union activity as well as spending by corporations and rich individuals. 

“I want it to be balanced and address the issue of union contributions as well as other outside contributions,” he said. 

McCain said the legislation drafted by Democrats does not ensure regulatory parity between corporate and union activity. 

He said the talks have been going on for “a couple of months.” 

McCain predicts the avalanche of corporate and union money loosed by the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, will eventually lead to “a major scandal.” 

Already, this year, super-PACs and political advocacy groups have spent millions of dollars to influence the Republican presidential primary and Senate GOP primaries. 

The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson propped up Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign single-handedly. Watchdog groups say this creates an environment ripe for corruption. 

The Disclose Act introduced by  Whitehouse in March would require any group that spends $10,000 or more on election ads or other political activity to file a disclosure report with the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours. Reports would detail the nature of expenditures over $1,000 and reveal the names of donors who give $10,000 or more. 

The legislation would also require that outside group advertisements include “stand-by-your-ad” disclaimers listing the biggest donors. 

Forty-three Democrats have co-sponsored the legislation, but no Republican has endorsed it. 

Whitehouse said he is excited about the prospect of having McCain as an ally.

“He has a really remarkable record of courage and dedication in this area, so it’s a question of working to make sure the technical issues he wants to address and the technical issues that we want to address make a match and we can find something to agree on,” Whitehouse said. “We are beginning those discussions, but they’ve come to no conclusion yet, other than they are going forward amicably.”

A Democratic leadership aide said the bill is stalled without Republican support and said it might or might not reach the floor this year. 

McCain’s support would boost its prospects immediately. 

“That would change everything,” said the aide. “That would breathe new life into it.” 

If McCain were to throw his full political weight behind the bill, he would likely bring other Republicans on board. Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) are Republicans friendly with McCain who could join him.

But McCain would irk his leadership by teaming up with Democrats. 

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been the Senate’s staunchest opponent of campaign finance restrictions.

McConnell, who regards such limits as infringements of the First Amendment, was the lead plaintiff in a suit challenging the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2003 before striking down regulations on corporate and union political spending in Citizens United.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, who worked closely with McCain to pass the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, said Republican leaders have concluded that unfettered spending by outside groups is good for their party.

“It’s really important to understand the Republican Party leadership in Congress and elsewhere has made the assessment that super-PAC spending and … shadow-super-PAC spending is going to benefit Republicans,” she said. “To date, that has been proven true.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Republican-allied outside groups have dramatically outspent incumbent Democratic senators and their allies this year. 

In Ohio, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS and the 60Plus Association have funded the bulk of a $5 million advertising campaign against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), outspending him and his allies by a ratio of 10 to 1. 

In Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) faces a tough race, conservative and pro-business groups have outspent liberal groups by more than 4 to 1. 

Campaign finance reform advocates had begun to think that McCain deserted their cause to focus on his work on national security and international relations. 

“My assumption has been, for all the political capital he spent on McCain-Feingold, he felt he did not get rewarded when he ran against Obama,” McGehee said, referring to the 2008 presidential race. “He’d rather spend his political capital elsewhere.”

McGehee said the risk-reward calculus might not look promising to McCain because “the politics aren’t very good at the moment.”

“Why should he put all his political capital in this when it didn’t serve him as expected?” she said. 

Even if the Disclose Act passes the Senate, it would have a tough time passing the Republican-controlled House. 

Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause, said McCain “hasn’t shown any indication that he wants to be involved in this stuff anymore.”