Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
October 30, 2014

October 29, 2014

Billionaires Dominate Campaign Spending, Analysis Shows

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A small subset of elite donors are dominating midterm spending, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This midterm’s price tag will hit $3.7 billion, according to the latest projection from the Center for Responsive Politics, with outside groups and billionaires playing a larger role than ever while small contributors dwindle in number.

Despite costing only slightly more than the previous midterms in 2010, according to a CRP analysis released Wednesday, this year’s elections will feature more outside spending; a bigger role for large donors; less candidate spending and fewer contributions from small donors. In 2010 total spending hit $3.63 billion, compared with the $3.67 billion that CRP predicts for 2014.

The increasingly dominant outside players “take an already elite group” of political donors “and distill it even further,” said CRP Executive Director Sheila Krumholz on releasing the center’s latest projections. The center calculates that only .02 percent of the nation’s estimated 310 million Americans make political contributions of $2,600 or more.

An even smaller subset of elite donors are dominating the midterms, CRP’s analysis shows, with such billionaires as environmentalist Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shoveling tens of millions into unrestricted super PACs. Steyer has given $73.7 million, much of it to his Democrat-friendly environmental super PAC NextGen Climate Action, and Bloomberg has given $20 million to gun safety and other groups. Just the top 20 individual donors to outside groups have shelled out a combined $168.6 million in this cycle, CRP found.

Though Democrat-friendly donors such as Steyer and Bloomerg top this year’s billionaire contributor list, and the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC is the biggest-spending super PAC so far, Republicans will still spend more money than Democrats overall, CRP projects. Republican candidates, party committees and outside groups will spend $1.75 billion, while their Democratic counterparts will spend $1.64 billion. The top conservative donor to outside groups this year is Paul Singer of the Elliott Management hedge fund, who has given $9.3 million.

Republicans will also spend far more undisclosed money than Democrats, according to CRP. Among outside groups that do not disclose their donors, including politically active tax-exempt advocacy groups and trade associations, Republican-friendly organizations will outspend pro-Democratic players by $111.7 million to $29.7 million, CRP projects.

“The big difference is secrecy. Team ‘red’ prefers it,” Krumholz said.

Together, CRP projects outside groups will spend $689.3 million in this election, with $329 million of it coming from Republican-aligned organizations and $314.6 million from Democrat-focused groups. These projections, moreover, do not even include “issue” advertisements that fall completely outside the disclosure rules, which CRP estimates will add well more than $100 million to overall spending. The tens of millions spent by such conservative advocacy groups as Americans for Prosperity, underwritten by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and their allies, fall into this category.

Other highlights from the CRP projections include:

  • ŸDisclosed outside spending already totals $480 million, or 13 percent of this cycle’s total. That’s a 66 percent increase over the 2010 elections, when outside spending hit $309 million, or 8.5 percent of the total.
  • ŸWall Street continues to dominate, with financial services donors giving $100.8 million, more than any other industry. Most of the candidate money — 62 percent — goes to Republicans, with just 38 percent to Democrats and another share going to outside groups. Lawyers and and law firms are the top industry giving to Democrats.
  • In 32 races, outside groups have spent more than candidates. The North Carolina Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and her GOP challenger Thom Tillis has drawn the most outside money, with $58 million spent, even more than the previous record of $52.4 million outside money in the 2012 Virginia Senate race.
  • The number of individual donors giving more than $200 in “hard money” to candidates or party committees subject to contribution limits is shrinking. In every midterm election cycle until the previous one, the pool of individual donors has grown, topping out at 817,464 in 2010. This time only 666,773 individuals have made campaign contributions, a number that is expected to increase between now and Election Day, but that still may not match the 2010 total.

“This latest research again shows further compression of the process,” concluded CRP senior fellow Bob Biersack. “More and more of the relevant participation is happening among fewer and fewer actors, both people and organizations.”

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

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How Does Campaign Financing Affect Polarization? | Procedural Politics

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Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing on campaign finance. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An interesting debate is swirling around next Tuesday’s midterm elections for Congress. It involves the extent to which the sources, amounts and uses of campaign contributions will affect not only the outcomes of various hotly contested races but the makeup, policy agenda and processes of the next Congress.

The 2010 midterms returned Republicans to power in the House after four years of Democratic rule. They also brought in a wave of hardline tea party conservatives who made any kind of cooperation between the House, Senate and White House nearly impossible. The re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012 did not alter that dynamic. If anything, it made governing even more problematic as the 2013 government shutdown amply demonstrated.

Two events this month helped highlight the nexus between campaign financing and polarization in Congress. The Bipartisan Policy Center convened a roundtable Oct. 16 that brought together scholars, political practitioners, good government groups and journalists to discuss whether the current state of campaign financing is responsible for the increasing level of polarization and gridlock in Congress. 

The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs hosted the second event Oct. 20 in Austin, “Mastering Congress: Political Reform 50 Years After the Great Society.” The program featured two former Texas congressmen who serve on the BPC Commission on Political Reform, and two political scientists who are coauthors of an award-winning book on the increasing role members of Congress play in raising money for their party campaign committees and other candidates.

Dueling duos of academic election experts kicked-off the former roundtable. Tom Mann and Anthony Corrado, governance studies fellows at the Brookings Institution, take issue with those who assert that campaign finance law restrictions have weakened the parties and strengthened outside groups that tend to support more extreme candidates. They maintain that parties are as strong as ever but that the Republican Party “has veered sharply right in recent decades” producing an “asymmetric polarization” characterized by an unwillingness to compromise and a set of “unusually confrontational tactics.”

University of Massachusetts political scientists Ray LaRaja and Brian Schaffner say their research at the state level suggests Mann and Corrado “could be wrong.” Their study indicates that, “states with party-centered campaign finance laws tend to be less polarized than states that constrain how the parties can support candidates.” This is because party organizations tend to fund more moderate, pragmatic candidates. Both sides of the debate concur that recent campaign financing developments are not the overriding cause of increased polarization but have certainly exacerbated it.

Eric Heberlig of the University of North Carolina and Bruce Larson of Gettysburg College, co-authors of “Congressional Parties, Institutional Ambition, and the Financing of Majority Control,” told the Austin conference about the explosive, coordinated growth since 1990 in campaign giving by members of Congress to their party committees and other candidates. Today, party leaders importune their members to give generously to their party campaign committees. The leadership establishes quotas for overall giving to the party depending on a member’s position in the leadership or on committees.

Consequently, members spend less time on their legislative work in Congress and more time raising campaign funds for their own re-election and their party. Former Reps. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, agreed that members now spend at least one-fourth of their time attending fundraisers and dialing for dollars. Committees consequently are less involved in serious policymaking as party leaders increasingly shape the legislative agenda to satisfy party campaign contributors.  The former congressmen say this shift was especially noticeable beginning in 2006 (Bonilla) or 2010 (Gonzalez).

The increasing role of Super PACs and wealthy, independent donors in recent election cycles poses more unanswered questions about the impact of campaign giving on the agenda and processes of Congress. If there is some correlation between the growth and sources of campaign spending, on the one hand, and legislative outcomes in Congress, then record-breaking campaign spending this cycle could either make the 114th Congress even more gridlocked than its predecessor or more unified and productive around a few select issues — all depending on which party wins the Senate.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

K Street Files: Is That a Lobbyist Knocking on Your Door?

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Lobbyists are hitting the campaign trail this fall, including for Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With the midterm elections one week away, K Street lobbyists are taking their powers of persuasion to the campaign trail. Their target audience: voters.

Though they may be more accustomed to trolling the halls of the Capitol or getting stuck on client conference calls discussing legislative strategy, over the next few days, lobbyists plan to employ a different set of skills that include walking door-to-door, holding campaign signs or driving voters to the pools in major contests around the country.

“I’m ready not to sleep and to wear very comfortable shoes and go wherever they need me,” said Dawn Levy O’Donnell, who runs the firm D Squared Tax Strategies.

O’Donnell is heading to Colorado to help the campaign of Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who is in a tough race against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner. She went to college at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus and considers the state a home.

Full story

October 28, 2014

Republicans Join Attacks on Big Money | Rules of the Game

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Sullivan is calling for an end to outside spending. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Senate candidate warned that voters’ voices are being “drowned out” by “third-party special interest groups with unlimited spending capability,” and called on his opponent to help him bar big outside spenders from the race.

Another Democrat parroting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attacks on secret campaign spending? Actually, the Senate hopeful railing against political money was Republican Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who sought — without success — to convince incumbent Democrat Mark Begich to sign a pledge to stop the outside money flooding in.

Sullivan is one of more than half a dozen Republican congressional candidates who have made assaults on big money in politics an important campaign theme. Until now, the issue was almost exclusively a Democratic talking point.

It’s a curious twist that reflects growing voter focus on political money, which has drawn news coverage as midterm spending approaches a record $4 billion, and fresh GOP interest in populist anti-corruption messages that resonate with the tea party.

Leading the way has been none other than GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who asserted that “no one in the history of American politics has ever won or lost a campaign on the subject of campaign finance reform.”

McConnell’s campaign has leveled a long list money- and ethics-related attacks against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. These include her invitation to “Obama billionaire” Warren Buffett to join a campaign fundraising event via conference call; her attendance at a “luxurious fundraiser” with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at the home of a controversial Kentucky businessman, and her alleged “sweetheart deal” to rent a campaign bus at less than market value.

“By his actions, he is recognizing that money in politics is a powerful issue to win elections,” said David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, an advocacy group with an affiliated super PAC that promotes political money limits.

Democrats have rejected these attacks and hammered on unrestricted secret GOP spending, as they did in 2010, with a special focus this time on the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. In the previous midterm, voters collectively shrugged and handed the House majority to Republicans. In this election, polls suggest voters have trouble even identifying the Koch brothers.

But Republicans are now leveling their own assaults on billionaires, special interests and lobbyists. In addition to Sullivan, Republican House candidates Mark Greenberg, who’s challenging incumbent Elizabeth Esty in Connecticut’s 5th District, and Evan Jenkins, running against Rep. Nick J. Rahall II in West Virginia’s 3rd District, have called on their Democratic opponents to sign a “people’s pledge” to discourage outside spending. Not surprisingly, given the success of Democratic super PACs in these midterms, Esty, Rahall and other Democrats presented with such pledges have largely declined.

Republicans have leveled their attacks in fundraising appeals, ads and during debates. In North Carolina, Republican Thom Tillis charged in target=”_blank”>an ad that Senate Democrat Kay Hagan missed an Armed Services Committee hearing “while ISIS grew” because “she prioritized a cocktail party to benefit her campaign.”

In Iowa’s Senate contest, Republican Joni Ernst accused Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley of “being supported by [a] California billionaire extreme environmentalist who opposes the Keystone pipeline,” a reference to billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his multi-million dollar super PAC, NextGen Climate Action.

The Republican-friendly super PAC American Crossroads also attacked Braley over Steyer’s high-dollar backing. In one target=”_blank”>Crossroads ad, spiced up with images of hundred-dollar bills, a narrator intones: “Bruce Braley; he’s on the side of billionaire special interests, not Iowa workers.”

Republican House hopeful Richard Tisei charged in a recent debate that 6th district incumbent Democrat Seth Moulton has “raised more money in New York City on Wall Street than he has in the congressional district.” In New York’s 18th district, Republican Nan Hayworth, who is seeking to recapture her House seat from Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, charged that biomass executive Jim Taylor has “lined the congressman’s pockets” with at least $100,000 in bundled contributions.

Even GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative Texan who’s railed against campaign finance limits almost as vigorously as McConnell, recently proposed in his list of GOP priorities for 2015 “a lifetime ban on members of Congress becoming lobbyists” as one way to “stop the Washington corruption.”

Similarly, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus suggested in this month in his “Principles for American Renewal” that “bureaucrats, lobbyists and out-of-touch politicians need to get out of the way, and give American workers and businesses the freedom to create jobs.”

“They know that the role of money in politics is part and parcel of why Washington isn’t working,” said Donnelly, of the GOP messaging. Donnelly’s Every Voice super PAC, and another even better-funded super PAC dubbed MayDay PAC, are spending their own unrestricted money to back candidates that support campaign restrictions, helping move the issue front and center.

It’s an open question whether attacks on big money will resonate with voters in the end. The only Republican so far to make the issue central to his campaign — Senate hopeful Jim Rubens, in New Hampshire — lost his primary bid to former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, despite backing from MayDay PAC, which remains more than $1 million shy of its $12 million fundraising goal.

With few exceptions, Republicans remain as staunchly opposed as ever to campaign finance limits. Still, Republicans are developing an appetite for big money as a campaign issue. As Tillis put it in a recent fundraising appeal: “It looks like money may be the deciding factor in this campaign, just as the pundits predicted.”

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

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October 24, 2014

Koch Lobbying Nears $10 Million, Donation Transparency Increases

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Charles and David Koch are best known for their big political spending, but public records show the billionaire industrialists have also invested close to $10 million on lobbying Congress this year, targeting such issues as carbon taxes, renewable fuel standards, greenhouse gas restrictions and campaign financing.

The Koch Industries legal, lobbying and public affairs arm, known as Koch Companies Public Sectors, spent $4 million on lobbying between July 1 and Sept. 30, according to its third-quarter lobbying report, more than in any quarter this year or in 2013. The multinational corporation deployed half a dozen lobbyists largely to push back against federal taxes and environmental mandates, and to monitor legislation in such areas as oil and gas, trade and transportation.

That brings Koch lobbying to $9.4 million through the first three quarters of this year, putting Koch Companies Public Sector on pace to top the $10.4 million it spent on lobbying in 2013. Four of the six lobbyists identified on the company’s most recent disclosure report also helped underwrite the Koch Industries PAC, which has raised $3.2 million and is also on track to top its 2012 expenditures of $3.1 million.

Though under fire from Democrats for what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decries as their “shadowy influence,” the Koch brothers and their companies have substantially stepped up their publicly reported advocacy and campaign spending this year. Full story

October 14, 2014

FEC Rulemakings Roil Agency, Critics | Rules of the Game

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Is the Federal Election Commission a dysfunctional agency deaf to voters fed up with loophole-riddled campaign finance rules? Or is it a newly revived organization making unprecedented moves to invite a wide-ranging public debate over its regulations?

The answer may be both. In a fit of productivity on Oct. 9, the FEC managed to outrage its critics, thrill political party leaders, send election lawyers scrambling and break out once again into public bickering. It was an abrupt departure from the months and even years of partisan deadlock that have rendered the FEC incapable of settling even the most routine enforcement disputes. Full story

Members’ Day Proposals Reflect Varied Concerns | Procedural Politics

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Scalise testified in favor of re-establishing regular accounts for what are now called Congressional Member Organizations like the RSC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

My previous column left some readers in a state of suspended agitation because I praised the revival of the Members’ Day congressional reform hearing in the Rules Committee (after a 12 year hiatus), but failed to discuss any of the specific proposals recommended. Hopefully this account will douse the ire, though it doesn’t begin to cover all the proposals submitted by the 28 members who offered testimony.   Full story

Are Members Permitted to Help Companies in Which They Own Stock? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I heard that Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., may face ethics discipline because he assisted companies in which he owned stock. I know that Members are not supposed to use their position for their own personal gain, but I didn’t realize that meant they are disqualified from taking action on behalf of any companies in which they might own stock. Is that really the rule?

A. No, it is not. A member’s mere ownership of stock in a company does not disqualify the member from taking official acts on the company’s behalf. But, as the Petri matter illustrates, members should take special care when they assist companies in which they happen to own stock. Exactly what that means, unfortunately, is less than clear.

In a report made public last month the Office of Congressional Ethics, which filters allegations of misconduct for review by the House Committee on Ethics, concluded there is substantial reason to believe Petri “improperly performed official acts on behalf of companies in which he had a financial interest.” The OCE therefore recommended further review by the House Committee on Ethics, which it is now considering.

There is no dispute that Petri took official acts for companies in which he owned stock. That is allowed. At issue in the Petri case is whether he did so “improperly.” That is not. Full story

Will All the GOP Lobbyists Please Stand Up?

Kimberley Fritts may not be the Podesta Group’s typical public persona. That role most often belongs to Democratic donor and firm founder Tony Podesta.

But with the GOP poised to make gains in the Senate — perhaps big enough to capture control of the chamber — Fritts, a former Republican staffer who usually stays behind the scenes, recently sat in her downtown corner office and touted the shop’s ties to her party.

“We’ve got a very strong bench of Republicans here that I’m really proud of,” said Fritts, Podesta Group’s CEO. Full story

October 10, 2014

Dave DenHerder Starts at FP1 Strategies | Downtown Moves

Differences between national political campaigns and corporate or public affairs campaigns are slim these days.

That’s according to Iowa native Dave DenHerder, who is settling into his new role as a partner with FP1 Strategies this week after finishing nine years at Burson-Marsteller, including his most recent position as the U.S. CEO of the firm.

“The landscape of communications, be it political communications or corporate communications is changing,” DenHerder said in a phone interview Tuesday — his first day with FP1 Strategies — before catching a flight to London. “If you think about the way that corporations or businesses are running their communications, it is very similar to the way you run a presidential campaign.”

His experience bolsters his opinion. Full story

October 6, 2014

Members’ Day Revives Bipartisan Reform Fest | Procedural Politics

The House Rules Committee recently resurrected a custom first established in 1996 by then-Chairman Jerry Solomon, R-N.Y., inviting members of both parties to testify toward the end of the second session on rules changes they would like to see adopted in the next Congress.  Solomon called the hearing “Members’ Day” to connote the open-ended opportunity for any member to suggest improvements in House operations. 

The hearings produced an array of proposed rules changes ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.  It also helped affirm that some members still cared about the health and well-being of the institution — a concern that has been dwindling in recent years.  It’s much easier to bash Congress from the inside than to praise or defend it, especially given the foul mood of voters today toward government.

This year, the Rules Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House, chaired by Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., hosted the reform fest.Nugent indicated it was the first time since 2002 the hearing had been held.  It was so long ago that ranking subcommittee Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, first elected in 1996, said he had completely forgotten it had ever happened.  

Nugent also made  clear twice during the hearing that it would not be taking place if it did not have the full blessing and clearance from the Republican leadership — a reminder that Rules is a leadership committee and makes no moves independently, especially as they relate to the operations of the House. 

During the two-hour session on Sept. 17, the subcommittee heard from 15 witnesses (eight Republicans and seven Democrats), who found themselves agreeing more with each other and their Rules Committee interrogators, than disagreeing. Eleven other members submitted statements for the record. 

The hearing was different from the highly charged partisan exchanges that usually take place in the committee’s small hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol.  McGovern didn’t grasp that at first and read a prepared opening statement blasting Republicans for their procedural unfairness and record-breaking number of closed (no-amendment) rules.  When it became apparent this would not be the usual bare-knuckled committee brawl, he spent the rest of the hearing praising the chairman and witnesses from both parties on their thoughtful contributions.

Following the session, first-term Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, issued a statement saying the purpose of the hearing was to provide a forum for members of both parties to offer ideas on “how we can build on the positive reforms we have put in place over the last several years.”  Sessions said his goal as chairman “is for members to play an active role in shaping the rules package for the next Congress,” and that the hearing “was an important first step in that process.” 

If it were any other committee, such kudos and commitments might be taken as perfunctory nice-speak, signifying little.  Hearings are, after all, one way chairmen give their colleagues something to take credit for without having to give away the legislative store.  But the Rules Committee is a horse of a different color, not prone to making symbolic gestures, let alone to dispensing party favors across-the-aisle. 

Having worked closely with the committee over nearly three decades, including serving as Solomon’s chief-of-staff when the members’ day custom began, I sensed this was a genuine first step being taken by Boehner, through Sessions, after a 12-year hiatus, to signal a more inclusive and collegial tone and direction for the next Congress.  I could be wrong. It wouldn’t the first time my optimism has outraced reality.  But I also sense that House members, reflecting public demands to end gridlock, are ready for change and that this may be the real deal.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

Josh Cook Settles in at BerlinRosen | Downtown Moves

There are a lot of things that can change campaigns: Your candidate’s opponent says he “likes to fire people;” the Supreme Court upholds key parts of your candidate’s signature legislative piece; the opponent says he has “binders full of women.”

More than that, though, campaign teams need to get voters excited about the issues they think are important. For Josh Cook, the former Pennsylvania digital director for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign who became vice president of digital engagement at the New York City firm BerlinRosen in July, getting voters is one of the best parts of the job.

“You had to get people excited about any number of issues,” Cook said over the phone. “It’s not one policy, it’s not one platform … you have to get people excited about veterans’ issues, about women’s rights, about education, you name it. It’s fun, it’s a challenge every day.” Full story

September 30, 2014

Who Really Speaks for Veterans? | Rules of the Game

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VoteVets.org, led by Chairman Jon Soltz, has set out to spend some $7 million to help Democrats in midterm elections (CQ Roll Call File Photo).

Veterans organizations with overtly partisan messages and agendas have spent millions promoting candidates in tight Senate races in this election cycle, prompting criticism from veterans and established vet groups on both sides of the aisle.

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group with ties to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has spent more than $2 million blasting Democratic Senate candidates, Center for Responsive Politics data show, largely for failing to fix problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The veterans group has both stoked and capitalized on outrage over the VA scandal involving long wait times for medical care and the agency’s cover-up of those delays.

On the liberal side, the progressive group VoteVets.org has set out to spend some $7 million to help Democrats in the midterms, according to its organizers. The VoteVets political action committee has delivered more than $1 million to candidates both in direct donations and in bundled contributions since its founding in 2006.

The explosion in veteran-focused campaign spending alarms some veterans and longtime vets organizations. Membership-focused veterans associations, such as the American Legion, have long enjoyed special tax protections coupled with strict limits on their political activities. Some vets associated with the “old guard” worry politics will swallow the best interests of veterans.

“Most mainstream veterans groups are required to be nonpartisan, and it concerns me that we do have groups on both extremes that are very partisan in their approach and very calculating in what they want to accomplish,” said Joe Violante, national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, established in 1920 and congressionally chartered in 1932.

Violante voiced particular concern over attacks by Concerned Veterans for America against the VA. The conservative group has challenged VA funding increases and supports partially privatizing veterans’ health care. Such steps could make fewer veterans eligible for more limited services, Violante warned.

Concerned Veterans of America is run by and champions veterans, countered Dan Caldwell, the group’s issues and campaign manager, a veteran himself. The group fills a void in the veterans’ community, he said, by advocating VA changes, deficit reduction and national security. Caldwell acknowledged the VA scandal “changed the whole dynamic of our organization,” but denied that the group’s high-dollar attacks on such Democrats as North Carolina incumbent Kay Hagan and Bruce Braley in Iowa for failing to help veterans are political.

“These ads we consider issue advocacy,” Caldwell said. “They are based out of our VA reform efforts. We are not just a fly-by-night 501(c)(4) trying to use the VA scandal as an election-year issue. We have a long history on these issues. We have a real agenda on VA reform.”

But Concerned Veterans for America’s frequent attacks on the Affordable Care Act align it squarely with other Koch-affiliated groups. Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a trade association at the heart of the Koch donor network, gave $5.2 million to Concerned Veterans for America, 2012 tax records show.

Freedom Partners also purchased extensive airtime in Iowa and North Carolina earlier this summer, according to the Sunlight Foundation — valuable spots that were eventually used by Concerned Veterans for America. Caldwell said his group paid for the spots, and Freedom Partners had simply canceled its reservations, which freed up ad space.

VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz rejected any comparison between Concerned Veterans for America and his organization, which claims 450,000 members and was founded in 2006.

“I’m hesitant to say they’re anywhere equivalent to what we’ve built over eight years,” Soltz said. But VoteVets.org has also taken heat for its campaign advertising, recently drawing public criticism from a prominent Kentucky veteran over an ad assailing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for failing to back a bill that would have boosted VA funding by $21 billion. The ad was part of a $600,000 ad campaign against McConnell by VoteVets, which operates both a PAC and a social welfare arm known as VoteVets Action Fund.

McConnell “has been a vocal advocate about the urgent need for reform at the VA and was instrumental in helping ensure Senate passage of the important bipartisan veterans bill that was signed into law last month,” declared Karl Kaelin, vice chairman of a Kentucky committee of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a statement released by the McConnell campaign.

McConnell’s camp also dismissed VoteVets as a front “funded by environmental activists.” The VoteVets Action Fund has received more than $6 million in grants from a long list of environmental, labor and other progressive groups since 2010, according to the CRP. The group has also doled out grants to such Democrat-friendly allies as the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation and America Votes, an umbrella group for progressive activists, according to IRS records.

“We’re progressive, period,” acknowledged Soltz. “There are a lot of veterans out there who don’t feel veterans organizations represent them.”

Veterans’ issues have always resonated powerfully with voters, and that is particularly true in this election. The number of veteran-themed ads, by both outside organizations and candidates themselves, hit 34,000 nationwide as of the end of August, according to Kantar Media Ad Intelligence.

“Veterans are great messengers, because they don’t look political,” said Soltz. “And these are mom-and-apple pie issues: taking care of our veterans.”

But as veterans’ organizations become increasingly politicized, their credibility may be at risk.

 Eliza Newlin Carney is a senior staff writer covering political money and election law for CQ Roll Call.

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September 29, 2014

Ding-Dong Bell, Let’s Go Poison the Well | Procedural Politics

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Republicans and Democrats called on Gingrich to move one-minute speeches in 1996 amid increasing partisan acrimony. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Every year I take a group of Wilson Center fellows to Capitol Hill where we observe an hour of House proceedings from the gallery.  Some of the fellows, especially those from other countries, are both fascinated and perplexed by the opening ceremonies — the prayer, the pledge, the welcoming of a guest chaplain, followed by a series of one-minute speeches by members on anything they want to talk about.  

I tell the fellows this opening round of mini-speeches has been dubbed by someone, “the one-minute happy hour” because it is such an eclectic slice of Americana, from praising the hometown football team on winning the state championship, to commending a 100-year-old couple from the district on their 80th wedding anniversary, to blasting the opposition party. 

In the latter case, I inform the group that priority seating in the front row of the chamber goes to two groups of ringers on either side of the aisle dividing the parties. They lead off with their scripted, political messages, with recognition alternating between the parties. The Republicans call their speakers “The Theme Team,” and Democrats call theirs “The Message Group.”  The remarks are usually a mix of the positive and negative, from touting the party’s programs and accomplishments to criticizing the opposition party’s irresponsible policies.

To a visitor in the gallery it might appear that the bells convening the day’s session have triggered a partisan Pavlovian response.  In 1996, one-minutes got so nasty that a bipartisan group of 50 members wrote to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, urging him to move one-minutes to the end of the day because the partisan punch lines were poisoning the well of the House before the day’s legislative business even began.  It reminded me of the nursery rhyme, “Pussy’s in the Well,” but with a twist: “Ding-dong bell, let’s go poison the well.” Full story

September 18, 2014

Conservation Group to Spend Record $25 Million on Midterms

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The LCV will spend money on the Senate race in Colorado, where Udall is seeking re-election this cycle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The League of Conservation Voters will spend a record $25 million this cycle, organizers announced Thursday, five times what the environmental group spent on the 2010 midterms.

“We are poised to spend by far the most money we have ever spent in an election cycle,” President Gene Karpinski said in a conference call with reporters.

Most of the money, approximately $20 million, will be targeted to help Democrats running for Senate in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire. The league’s Alaska affiliate is also backing incumbent Democrat Mark Begich there. Another $5 million will go to assist pro-environment gubernatorial and legislative candidates in tandem with the league’s state affiliates. Full story

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