"We're going to make Mitch McConnell famous": Leading reformer details huge new quest

David Donnelly tells Salon why the new Senate majority leader should ready himself for a fight on campaign finance

Published January 7, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

Mitch McConnell               (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

When the so-called CRomnibus passed by the skin of its teeth in mid-December, averting the possibility of yet another government shutdown, most of the media’s focus was on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s all-out push to sink the bill unless lobbyist-written provisions repealing parts of Dodd-Frank were removed. But in the frenzy to declare Warren the future of the Democratic Party and/or the left’s version of former Sen. Jim DeMint, less attention was paid to the parts of the bill devoted to further weakening the nation's threadbare laws regulating campaign finance. Needless to say, these two controversial provisions are intimately related.

Hoping to get a sense of what the CRomnibus' changes mean for the campaign finance reform movement, Salon recently called David Donnelly, the executive director of the pro-reform group Every Voice. In addition to discussing the CRomnibus, we also talked about what the movement can learn from its losses in the 2014 midterm elections and why incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the most prominent anti-reform politician in Washington — can expect to be fighting reformers tooth and nail in 2015 and beyond. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What was the change to campaign finance regulations that was in the so-called CRomnibus bill that just passed?

The majorities in the House and Senate placed a provision in it that would allow wealthy people to give much larger contributions to political parties than before. They allowed parties to take three times the amount they typically take for a number of different new funds that parties can set up. So instead of parties being limited to take about $100,000 across their different pots of money, they can now take close to $800,000 from an individual in a single year and about $1.5-1.6 million across an election cycle. If you have a couple, that number goes up to $3.1 million. Really, it's a way to allow large contributors to give even more money in politics than ever before.

And how tight are the restrictions on what the parties do with that money once they've got it? Technically X amount is supposed to only go to party infrastructure, while X amount goes to updating offices or whatever. How likely is it that the parties will be able to spend the money however they like?

Money is money and it's somewhat fungible. The definitions are not that clear and the agency that would home in on and describe what a building fund, say, could be used for is the FEC, the Federal Elections Commission, which, as we all know, is constantly gridlocked. We don't think that the FEC as it is currently constituted would actually be able to provide clear rules to limit the amount of money that would seep out from these funds to activities that used to be supported by the direct contributions to political parties.

And this was a rare bipartisan measure, too, right?

I think what's very interesting about this provision and the debate that took place about its inclusion in this big budget bill was not only that the proponents were bipartisan — it looks like the House leadership on the Republican side and the Senate leadership on the Democratic side colluded to bring this in place into the bill — but it looks like the opposition to this bill was also bipartisan. From Speaker Pelosi to Sen. John McCain to some of the Tea Party members in the House ... they all called attention to this as the wrong way to go. What we're seeing is bipartisan support as well as bipartisan opposition because this provision was so egregious that members of both political parties spoke out against it.

How mad should people interested in campaign finance reform be at these provisions and the way they were pushed through?

I think people should be outraged that this is happening in Washington after the kind of election we just saw, with money pouring in to all the competitive races and all the super PACs. It was an excessive amount of money in a relatively small number of races. This provision will further consolidate control over our political system into the hands of a few people, and I do think it's important for people to know that there will be additional efforts to chip away at our campaign finance laws.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will take over leadership of the Senate in the next Congress, will also be pursuing a number of different changes to campaign finance law — so get angry now, but save some of that outrage for later. There are moments that are coming up that we'll be able to win and beat back those efforts to try to rewrite the rules of the game. I do think the level of the debate and the amount of attention on this provision makes it harder for Republicans and Democrats to do this again. It'll make it harder for the president to sign the next anti-reform measure that comes toward his desk.

Is there a silver lining just from the fact that this caused so much outrage and garnered so much attention? It probably wouldn’t have been such big news, say, five years ago.

You have to be a glass-half-full kind of person to work for as long as some of us have on the issue of money and politics. You need to be optimistic that there are better days coming. But you also need to understand that people in power are going to continue to chip away at these laws and you need to be ready for a fight. I'm very appreciative of the leadership that Nancy Pelosi has specifically shown in raising the profile of this fight to a place where it was one of the dominant themes in the coverage of this bill. I think it was a further sign for people of this country that these are important fights and that Washington needs to hear from us and that there are leaders in office that aren't OK with these types of changes.

The fact that [the vote] was so close because of this provision and because of the Wall Street provision — which is also a special-interest story — means that people are paying attention and elected officials are wary of crossing voters on these types of issues.

You mentioned the midterm a bit ago. Obviously, it was not a good election for supporters of campaign finance reform. As you look back, are there any big strategic decisions you’d make differently now? Or do you feel like this work is going to be a “two steps forward, one step back” dynamic and that setbacks are inevitable?

I've looked back a lot over the last several months, thinking about the decisions that we made and that others have made about engaging in the issue of money in politics, and I feel like it's really easy to look at individual decisions in retrospect and point out where we could have done a better job. I'm proud of the work we did; we helped to elect four champions across the 12 races we were engaged in. I think this election turned on a different set of issues than money in politics, even as voters were disgusted by all the money that was spent in this election.

I think if I had to apply one macro lesson across our work it would be to drive the solution story a little bit better than what we were able to do, because that would signal to voters who was on their side rather than just point out the problem of money in politics in these elections. If we had been clear about why we were supporting certain candidates and opposing others around the solutions, that might have helped voters cut through all the criticism back and forth.

It was an incredibly difficult election cycle to drive any kind of messaging besides the dominant theme of being against what the current administration is doing, so the fact that we helped to elect four people, we feel pretty good about that.

What do you say to those who argue that instead of focusing on many races (many of which will be low-profile) reformers should go all in on a big-name candidate and make a splash? Like supporting Zephyr Teachout, for example.

I'm really not a big fan of all-or-nothing strategies. I think it's important that the work you do crosses several different strategies. We wouldn't just put all of our eggs in one basket, we'd continue to do the long-term work of building relationships with other organizations to build champions at all levels of government, to try to turn chambers into being more pro-reform at the state level. There's so many different things that will bear fruit in this area if we do them all well.

I think it is important to have national leadership. Sen. McCain and Sen. Feingold were incredible leaders and that bill would not have gotten through for lack of their leadership. It's important that they were identified personally with it, so I think there's a strong value in having a national champion but I don't think that should be the only strategy. I think we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and we can do that as long as we're making strong decisions and doing it with strong organizations.

What can we expect to see from campaign finance reformers in the coming year?

One thing is that we're going to ... make Mitch McConnell famous for the favors he does for special-interest contributors. We want to take him on in the Senate at every turn, to hold him and his fellow senators accountable for the deals they cut for special-interest donors, including the loosening of campaign finance laws. We also want to hold the House accountable on a whole series of issues where their donors have been participating at the expense of constituents.

And then we're going to turn to the state level with aggressive strategies to move policies through ballot measures in legislative chambers. Largely we're looking at ballot measures in 2015 to drive the debate and to win new policies and bring citizens into the mix as policymakers themselves. After all, it's their democracy, not owned by legislative officials. If they can make laws via ballot questions that's all the better, so we're looking at that strategy.

Lastly, I think the campaign finance community knows we all need to bring more allies to the fight, and that means being in the fight for those allies themselves. Helping organizations with research and communications and strategy on the campaigns they're already engaged in in order to weave in the money-in-politics message to their work is an essential building block of our work, and we'll be doing a whole lot more of that in 2015, too.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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