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July 6, 2015

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June 4, 2015

Senate Trade Bill Prompts Floor Trades | Procedural Politics

The Senate trade promotion bill became a self-fulfilling prophecy in ways its sponsors probably didn’t anticipate — all before it could even pass the Senate. The trades made were legislative favors swapped on the floor for the support of senators otherwise threatening to bring the bill down. Step by step these legislative side payments accrued sufficient interest to move the bill forward and ultimately past the last 60-vote cloture threshold to final passage.

In Congress, politics is the art of the passable, and bargaining has always been a part of that process. For the trade bill that presented an especially tricky challenge since many of the favors sought would have invited a presidential veto if included as amendments to the bill. To overcome that obstacle the political odd couple of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and President Barack Obama combined forces to put the measure over the top through artful strategizing and persistent personal lobbying efforts, respectively.

Full story

April 10, 2015

2016: An Unanchored, Puzzling Presidential Election | Commentary

By Andrew Kohut

So far, the 2016 presidential campaign is not about anything very much, excepting issues specific to the leading and emerging candidates. It has been mostly about controversies swirling around Hillary Rodham Clinton, including the legacy question, which she shares with Jeb Bush. And more recently the focus has turned to the qualifications and electability of the emerging GOP newbies, from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who stand in the way of a possible third Bush presidency. In none of this do we see anything that speaks to the general state of the nation or mood of the electorate. At this point, 2016 seems more puzzling and less defined than other modern era non-incumbent races.

Consider 2008: The overarching themes were quite clear — discontent with the outgoing George W. Bush administration and broad disapproval of the Iraq War. Then, there was the 2000 race taking place during a historic economic boom era. The public was so laid back about the way things were going in the country that  while the Supreme Court was deciding who actually won the election, polls found Americans willing to embrace either outcome. Gallup reported 8 out of 10 Americans said they would accept the Supreme Court’s choice as the legitimate winner of the election. Imagine that in these polarized times!
But this time around, it is not so easy to get a handle on the mood and temper of the times that will animate the electorate in 2016. Indeed, a close look at current polling raises a number of basic questions about what kind of election this is going to be. First, the most fundamental question about the outcome of presidential elections is: Are the voters looking for continuity or for change? On the one hand, high levels of discontent with Washington, and a continued low rating for the state of the nation strongly suggests it will be a change election. However, rising economic confidence, an unemployment rate that has declined markedly and an incumbent president whose approval ratings have increased significantly may argue for continuity.
Secondly, it is very unclear which political party has an advantage. In three of the past four presidential campaigns, the party with the most favorable image won the presidency. Polls today show very conflicted public views about both political parties with neither clearly outshining the other.
Thirdly, each party has a candidate challenge. On the Democratic side, mixed views about an unchallenged Clinton, even before current controversies, is the mega puzzle of this election. For the Republicans, will the increased rightward movement of the Republican base doom the chances of a viable right of center candidate?
Fourthly, will foreign policy emerge again as a key issue in this campaign after years of taking a backseat to the economy and domestic issues? With an ever growing concern about Islamic radicalism, and a return of American forces to the Middle East, will voters once again be judging candidates on the basis of their world views and national security competence?

Continuity Versus Change
President Barack Obama’s job approval ratings have begun to move out of negative territory for the first time since 2013. The Pew Research Center’s March  survey had the president’s ratings about evenly divided between approvers (46 percent) and disapprovers (47 percent).  The Gallup Poll had an even higher rating for Obama, (50 percent to 46 percent).
A January Pew Research survey noted Obama was being helped by a steady improvement in public views of the nation’s economy. In January, 27 percent said national economic conditions are excellent or good, up from 16 percent a year earlier. And almost twice as many expect the economy to be better than worse a year from now (31 percent vs. 17 percent).
For the first time in five years, more Americans say Obama’s economic policies have made conditions better (38 percent) than worse (28 percent) and Obama engenders more public confidence on his handling of the economy than do the leaders of the new Republican majority in Congress.
At the same time, national polls find just about 1 in 3 Americans saying they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. Pew Research surveys identify three continuing sources of discontent: While there are fewer who complain about the job situation than any time since the onset of the great recession, a 57 percent majority continue to say jobs are difficult to find in their community.
Although inflation is at almost zero, 55 percent of Americans, held back by low wages, continue to say they are falling behind the cost of living.

(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Fully 72 percent say that, in general, the government’s policies since the recession have done little or nothing to help middle-class people, and nearly as many say they have provided little or no help for small businesses (68 percent) and the poor (65 percent).

Which Party Has the Advantage?
In recent years, for the most part, the Democratic Party has been better liked than the GOP. Threats of government shutdowns, especially in 2013, took a toll on the image of the Republicans. Its national favorability rating fell into the 30s in response, while the Democrats’ ratings remained in the mid-40s. Pew Research’s most recent poll finds the GOP rating improving  to 41 percent favorable, compared to the Democrats’ 46 percent.

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Reflecting that narrow margin, a February survey revealed how conflicted Americans are about the two parties. It concluded “Majorities say the Democratic Party is open and tolerant, cares about the middle class and is not ‘too extreme.’” By contrast, most Americans see the GOP lacking tolerance and empathy for the middle class, and half view it as too extreme.
“Nonetheless, the Republicans more than hold their own with the Democrats in views of which party can better handle major issues,” the survey found. “The Republican Party runs even on the economy and immigration and holds double-digit leads over the Democrats on terrorism, foreign policy and taxes.”

Kohuttt041015
There is little here to suggest either party has a positive enough image to give its presidential candidate a significant advantage, which has not been the case in the last three presidential elections. In 2003, the GOP was better regarded than the Democrats, while in 2007 and 2011 the opposite was the case.

The Candidate Challenges
Even before the overwhelming impact of Clinton’s email controversy, a close reading of polls revealed the public had very conflicted attitudes toward the former first lady’s candidacy. While a generally popular Clinton bested all comers in the Democratic Party and all possible Republican opponents, Americans held mixed views about her as a potential president. Notably, an ABC News/Washington Post survey in October found just 51 percent of its respondents thought she would make a good president, while 41 percent thought she would not.

The Clinton problem on the Democratic side dwarfs the GOP’s issues, but Republicans also face a major challenge. The Republican base is even more dominated by ultra conservative right voters in 2016 than it was in 2012, raising the issue of whether centrist candidates will be  pushed even further from the mainstream than in past nominating contests.

Kohutttt041015

In this light, it is not surprising that while  Bush and Walker run slightly ahead of the field in the Real Clear Politics average of Republican voter survey results, Cruz, Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson are all in striking distance.

Foreign Policy, Once Again
The Pew Research Center led off its annual national priorities report noting the public mood had changed. “As views of the economy improve and terrorist threats persist, the public’s policy priorities have changed: For the first time in five years, as many Americans cite defending the U.S. against terrorism (76 percent) as a top policy priority as say that about strengthening the nation’s economy (75 percent).” The survey also found strengthening the U.S. military had also increased markedly. The number of Americans saying that should be a top priority jumped from 41 percent in 2013 to 52 percent currently.
While the public’s focus for the most part remains on domestic issues, it is also clear the threat of Islamic terrorism has once again raised the profile of  national security as a public concern and potential basis of candidate evaluation.

Andrew Kohut is founding director of the Pew Research Center.

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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January 6, 2015

Parties Poised to Exploit Broad New Rules | Rules of the Game

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When Congress moved quietly late last year to permit much larger contributions to the political parties, some experts cast the rules change as, at best, an improvement on the old system, and, at worst, inconsequential.

“This isn’t going to be a game changer for big money in politics,” Jonathan Bernstein, political scientist and columnist, said of the higher limits. The limits now allow an individual to give as much as $1.7 million to the parties in one election cycle — an exponential increase over the previous per-cycle cap of $64,800.

“For those who want more transparency, this means more accountability in political fundraising,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus declared in USA Today. The rule’s cheerleaders enthuse that strengthening parties tempers partisanship and frees parties to better compete with unrestricted and increasingly influential outside groups that often operate outside the disclosure rules.

It remains to be seen whether such sunny predictions come true, or whether the watchdogs’ dire warnings — that the new rules will usher in a new era of soft-money abuses — will prove closer to the mark. Either way, there’s little question that party officials will test the new regulations to the fullest, exploring every possible legal avenue to fatten their coffers.

True, the new limits do not free the parties to raise unrestricted money for just any purpose. Under the campaign finance provisions inserted into the eleventh-hour “cromnibus” spending package, the party committees may raise larger amounts only for separate accounts to pay for their conventions; for buildings and facilities, and for election recounts and other legal matters.

But the broad wording of the campaign finance changes, and the backdoor way in which Senate leaders slipped them into budget legislation, leave plenty of room for interpretation. In the 1990s, a single Federal Election Commission regulation that approved soft money for “party building” ultimately led the parties to round up unlimited corporate checks to pay for campaign ads cast as “issue ads.”

This time, look for the parties to use funds set aside for building, legal and convention costs in equally creative ways. Of particular interest will be funds ostensibly raised for “the construction, purchase, renovation, operation and furnishings of one or more headquarters buildings of the party,” as the statute describes it. The term “party operations,” for one, could be interpreted to include “activities such as data mining and modeling projects or opposition research centers,” noted election lawyers at Covington & Burling in a recent client memo.

The new party convention accounts could also become “a route to tickets and passes to the national conventions,” the memo adds. The reference to “headquarters buildings of the party” is also open to interpretation. It could mean one national party headquarters building in Washington, D.C., for example, or buildings in states all over the country, noted Robert Lenhard, a Covington & Burling partner who coauthored the memo with four colleagues.

Having been approved with no public notice or comment, the new rules raise some tough questions said Lenhard, a former chairman of the FEC: “This is a statute that was passed without any committee hearings, without any statutory definitions, without any legislative history whatsoever.”

Legal funds, for example, could potentially be spent in any number of ways — and as yet, campaign finance lawyers don’t have ready answers. The new rules specify that parties may raise additional funds in accounts “to defray expenses incurred with respect to the preparation for and the conduct of election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings.”

But what is meant by legal proceedings? Could it, for example, be interpreted to include the Republican Party’s legal challenge to the Obama administration’s alleged abuses of executive power? Or to help pay for additional legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act?

“I don’t know,” said Trevor Potter, another former chairman of the FEC and president of the Campaign Legal Center. “None of us know.” He added, “I haven’t seen any legislative history. I’ve just seen these provisions. They’re pretty broadly drafted.”

It falls naturally to the FEC to step in and help answer the many regulatory questions raised by the new party fundraising rules. But the commission, divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, has stalemated repeatedly on key policy matters in recent years. And few expect the FEC, which helped usher in the first round of soft money, to offer party officials much guidance.

In the meantime, even experts who applaud the infusion of fresh funds into the political parties have little doubt the parties will leverage them to the fullest. Lenhard noted, “I think politics is very entrepreneurial. And history has shown us that people are very creative and thoughtful in looking for ways they can succeed in a competitive environment.”

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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September 30, 2014

Who Really Speaks for Veterans? | Rules of the Game

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).

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 16, 2014

Can Answering a Campaign Call Break the Law? | A Question of Ethics

Q. As an aide to a Member of the House, I have a question about the rule requiring the separation of campaign work from official House activities. In our office, we are generally careful about keeping these separate. But, one problem we run into time and again is that people outside the House are not at all familiar with the distinction. For example, we frequently receive calls or emails about the Member’s upcoming campaign at our Member’s House office. We don’t want to run afoul of the rules. But, we don’t want to ignore folks either. What can we do?

A. Campaign season is upon us! Does it ever really go away?

Yes, campaigning has become a year-round activity, and members and staffers must always be mindful of rules governing campaign activity. But, as November approaches, the increased activity and urgency makes the risk of violations grow even greater.

While there are many, many rules governing campaign activity by House staffers, your question concerns the prohibition against using official House resources for campaign purposes. Let’s take a look at that rule and see how it might apply to your quandary.

Broadly, official House resources may only be used for official House purposes. They may not be put to personal use or used for campaign activities. These restrictions derive from the general rule that congressional allocations of funds must be used for the purpose for which they are allocated.

As you point out, many House staffers and campaign staffers are familiar with the prohibition against using House resources for campaign purposes, and responsible House offices and campaigns take care to comply with it. For example, a compliant House staffer would never perform campaign activities while at work or using official House resources. Staffers who wish to work on campaigns generally know they must do so outside their congressional office and on their own time.

Unfortunately, many people who contact these offices, including constituents, are not aware of these rules. In fact, some even seem unaware there is any distinction at all between someone acting in their official capacity as opposed to for campaign purposes. So, when these people contact a House office with a campaign question, what can you do? Do you have to ignore them?

The short answer is no. The rules do not require incivility. But you do need to be careful about how you respond.

Last month, the House Committee on Ethics issued a memorandum about campaign activity that might help. It contains no new rules, but instead is a “reminder to the House about commonly encountered issues” related to campaign activity. In addition to a top 10 list of “things to remember” about campaign activity, the memorandum contains a useful series of questions and answers with tips from the committee itself.

One question is right on point. It asks: “What do I do if people call, email, stop in, or write to the congressional office about campaign activities?” The memorandum answers generally that congressional offices receiving such communications may refer them to the appropriate campaign office. Conversely, campaign offices may refer to their respective congressional offices any communications received regarding officially related matters. All such referrals, the memorandum says, should come at the expense of the campaign.

The memorandum offers several tips for how congressional offices can handle these types of communications without running afoul of the law. Broadly, it says the “best practice” is to use the least amount of official resources necessary to forward the communications to where they belong. More specifically, for calls, the memorandum says  the campaign should bear the expense of any long-distance calls in response to messages left at the office related to campaign activity. For letters, a congressional office should consider having on hand envelopes and stamps paid for by the campaign that can be used in responding to letters about the campaign to inform the sender to contact the campaign. And, for emails, congressional offices may simply forward the email to a campaign email address, and then the campaign may respond.

Note that there can be severe sanctions for those who blur the lines between campaign activity and official work, including steep fines and even jail time. When answering the phone, the rules don’t require you to be rude. Just careful.

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to cdavidson@mcguirewoods.com. Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

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Influence Industry Remembers ‘Unique’ Thomas H. Boggs Jr. | K Street Files

Boggs, who died on Monday, is remembered warmly by his colleagues. (CQ Roll Call File Photo.)

Boggs, who died on Monday, is remembered warmly by his colleagues. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thomas H. Boggs Jr. had the clout of an oracle, the air of a senator and a joie de vivre that gleefully declared his family’s Louisiana roots.

The son of the late House Majority Leader Thomas Hale Boggs and Rep. Lindy Boggs built his firm into the top grossing K Street practice. He was an institution himself, representing trial lawyers, businesses and associations until his death Monday of an apparent heart attack at age 73. Lawmakers and presidents of both parties sought more than his campaign cash; they wanted his counsel. He gave them both.

“He was a pioneer in our industry,” said Haley Barbour, founder of the BGR Group and the former Republican governor of Mississippi. “But for most of us who knew him, he was just a great friend and very, very smart.” Full story

By Kate Ackley Posted at 1:23 p.m.
Uncategorized

July 29, 2014

Mini-Mega Donors Dominate Downtown Giving | K Street Files

In the jet-set world of the country’s biggest political donors, K Street can seem puny.

Individual lobbyists typically do not reach into the highest levels of personal campaign contributions; that’s an echelon billionaires dominate.

But K Street’s elite mini-mega donors have blown beyond the former federal “max out” limitation of $123,200 that the Supreme Court threw out this spring in its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision.

Now that lobbyists — and anyone else — can give to all congressional candidates, as well as to party coffers and political action committees, K Street’s biggest donors have to search for new ways of saying “no.” And sometimes that translates into a simple “yes.”

“With me, it’s always a matter of the good causes that come along that may make you do one more,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., a senior adviser with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. With the Senate in play and races likely to tighten up as the midterm elections approach, Fazio said it isn’t easy to say no.

“A time may come, in October, where I will be incommunicado,” Fazio said, half jokingly. “Out of phone range.”

(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Full story

July 28, 2014

Speaker’s Lawsuit Against Obama Is a Longshot | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker John A. Boehner’s plan to sue the president for overstepping constitutional boundaries has produced a cascade of volume and verbiage in media echo chambers. In a memo to his colleagues, Boehner explained, “President Barack Obama has declined to faithfully execute the laws of our country — ignoring some statutes completely, selectively enforcing others, and at times, creating laws of his own.” The president in return has called the suit a “stunt” and waste of taxpayer dollars.

I give the speaker two cheers for standing up for the institution of Congress in the face of what he perceives as questionable unilateral actions by the president to get what he wants. The president did give Congress fair warning of his intentions last January when he said, “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need.” He added, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone…and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions….”

The speaker’s initiative is designed in part to divert and relieve pressures from some in his party who want to impeach the president — something that would be politically suicidal and downright stupid. However, I have withheld the third cheer for the speaker’s stand because I think the judicial route is a long shot and the wrong shot.

It is a long shot because the odds are heavily against Congress being granted standing as an injured party in the president’s delay of the health care act’s employer mandate which is the target of Boehner’s suit. Even if Congress clears that hurdle, the courts would likely dismiss the suit as a “political question” between the branches — something in which courts have traditionally been reluctant to intervene.

It is the wrong shot because Congress should not be entrusting its fate to the third branch of government. If Congress clears the first two hurdles, the Supreme Court could well rule against it: hard cases make bad law and mad lawmakers. Even if not, such a precedent can only enhance the powers of the courts if either of the first two branches can go running to them any time it has a dispute with the other branch and expect intervention.

I am reminded of hearings before the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations in February 1974 on “Congress and Mass Communications.” The hearings were prompted by a persistent 20th century concern that the legislative branch was losing public confidence, power and stature vis-a-vis the executive, in part because the president dominates the airwaves (though President Richard Nixon’s press at the time wasn’t all that great in the wake of Watergate scandal revelations).

My boss then, GOP Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois, cautioned the committee against falling into the “media mandate trap” of tailoring legislative behavior and actions to maximize media coverage. He quoted Yale law professor Alexander Bickel’s testimony earlier in the decade on war powers: “The way for Congress to resume control over the foreign and war policy of the United States is to resume. The way to redress the balance is to redress it — by action.” Paraphrasing Bickel’s sentiments, Anderson said: “The way for Congress to make the news is to make news. The way to redress the balance is to redress it — by action.”

House Republicans are understandably angry over the president’s repeated assertions they have not taken action to help the middle class when in fact they have enacted several jobs-related bills and passed dozens of others that have gone nowhere in the Senate. Meantime, the president is doing what his predecessors have done by acting unilaterally to implement his agenda.

Whether Obama is pushing the constitutional envelope or shredding it is a matter of interpretation. Regardless, the two branches can better address their differences by reengaging each other in the national interest than by waging perpetual spitting matches in the national media.

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.

July 16, 2014

Reforms May Fade, but Voter Anger Won’t | Rules of the Game

Opponents of big money in politics celebrated some small victories lately: A constitutional amendment to curb campaign spending cleared a key Senate committee and was introduced in the House. And a new “super PAC to end all super PACs” raised $5 million in a matter of weeks.

At first glance, such long-shot causes look inevitably doomed to fail. No one really expects two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states to amend the Constitution in an area as disputed as campaign financing. And numerous super PACs bent on banning unrestricted money have come and gone in recent years, most of them now terminated.

But the latest campaign finance push, however impractical or constitutionally suspect, has tapped a well of voter anger that politicians ignore at their peril. Public disgust with Congress, which according to Gallup now enjoys a record-low 7 percent approval rating, may not impact this fall’s midterm elections. But as erstwhile House Majority Leader Eric Cantor discovered in his stunning loss in Virginia’s GOP primary, voter wrath over big money can exact a political price. Cantor’s primary opponent, tea party Republican Dave Brat, had made the majority leader’s cozy Wall Street and special interest ties a central campaign theme. Brat is now trumpeting the $400,000 he’s raised from small donors as evidence that he’s running a “campaign of the people.”

“People think you can’t win on the basis of this issue, and we want to say, ‘Actually, you can,’ ” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor who on May 1 founded the Mayday PAC, a crowdfunded super PAC that will back congressional candidates committed to campaign finance changes. “And we want to do it in a way that surprises Washington, inside the Beltway.”

Lessig has already surprised himself and others by pulling in $1 million in the PAC’s first 13 days, then another $5 million by July 4. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Lessig said he developed his own open source software to raise the money, since the popular Kickstarter crowdfunding tool lacked a platform for political donations. Mayday PAC has now raised $7.7 million of an anticipated $12 million once matching funds from large donors roll in, probably by the end of this month.

If Lessig hits his $12 million target, Mayday PAC will be among the top five highest-grossing super PACs in this midterm. The American Crossroads super PAC organized by GOP operative Karl Rove, for example, raised just $11 million through June 30 of this year, Federal Election Commission records show. Granted, the conservative super PAC’s social welfare affiliate, known as Crossroads GPS, appears to be raising and spending the largest share of the operation’s money in this election.

Still, Lessig’s anticipated $12 million haul is all the more noteworthy given how many super PACs formed with the aim of ending super PACs have fallen flat in recent years. A whole slew of do-gooder super PACs, many of them inspired by comedian Stephen Colbert’s super PAC contests and spoofs, sprung up in 2012. But virtually all of them, from Citizens Against Super PACs to No Dirty Money Elections, raised virtually no money and closed up shop within a year.

An exception is Friends of Democracy, a super PAC headed by David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. That PAC raised and spent about $2.5 million in the 2012 elections, and managed to oust eight of the nine candidates it targeted for defeat. In this cycle, Friends of Democracy had raised $2.5 million through the second quarter, and will announce by the end of this month a new slate of state and federal candidates.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest in it, and we’re very excited about the work that Mayday PAC and Larry Lessig are doing,” Donnelly said, noting the two PACs do not compete for donors and will coordinate their efforts. “There’s clearly an appetite for expanding this type of work.”

Lessig has generated media buzz and checks thanks in part to his public persona and promotional savvy. An author, progressive organizer and advocate of Internet deregulation, Lessig’s won backing from such Silicon Valley heavyweights as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. His crowdfunding model — donors were told they would get their money back if the PAC didn’t meet its targets in time — went viral to draw in 53,000 contributors.

The constitutional amendment push has also fueled surprising popular support. The amendment proposed by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall in the Senate and introduced this week in the House by Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., flies in the face of more than one landmark Supreme Court ruling. Republicans deride it as a blatant First Amendment violation.

Some campaign finance experts cast the uphill amendment drive as an ill-advised distraction from more pragmatic changes. Lessig’s Mayday PAC, for one, is focused not on amending the Constitution but on such changes as matching small-dollar donations with public funding. Yet proposals to amend the Constitution are now backed by 16 states and 550 municipalities.

“People are really angry about what’s happening in our democracy,” said Margrete Strand, executive vice president of Public Citizen. The push for an amendment is something that average voters can “understand” and “grab onto,” she added.

To be sure, voters are notoriously fickle when it comes to campaign financing. Gallup’s latest polls on the topic found that half of voters support government funding of elections, and 79 percent support limiting campaign receipts and spending. But Democrats’ perennial assaults on big money have repeatedly failed to help them at the polls.

Lessig has set out to prove the issue can fire up voters as well as donors, and Mayday PAC will announce a slate of at least five federal candidates on July 21. Whatever the merits and demerits of various campaign finance schemes, voters will ultimately have the last word.

“The only way to prove this is to do it,” said Lessig. “We can have all sorts of polling and science and focus groups. But the thing that counts in Washington is victory.”

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

May 6, 2014

Did Soft Money Ban Kill Political Parties? | Rules of the Game

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling to overturn limits on aggregate campaign contributions has revived a long-running debate over the demise of the nation’s political parties, and what could bring them back to life.

In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the high court may have done the parties a favor by eliminating the $123,200 cap on what individuals may give to candidates and parties as a group in one election cycle. Parties are now free to solicit much larger checks through so-called joint fundraising committees, a type of collective account that divvies up money between parties and candidates.

Watchdogs warn that such joint campaign funds will effectively bring back the unlimited soft money contributions to the parties that Congress banned in 2002, legislation best known as the McCain-Feingold law after its Senate authors. But conservatives hail the McCutcheon ruling as the first step toward repairing the damage that they say was done by that ban.

That law “has succeeded in profoundly altering the state of American politics by severely weakening American political parties to the benefit of outside spending groups who may raise and spend unlimited funds in connection with federal elections,” testified election lawyers Neil Reiff, a Democrat, and Donald McGahn, a Republican, before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee last week.

Reiff, the former deputy general counsel at the Democratic National Committee, and McGahn, a former FEC chairman, aren’t the only McCain-Feingold critics to vent their frustration with the soft money ban in recent weeks. If only Congress hadn’t outlawed soft money, the ban’s detractors imply, a host of political ills would never have come to pass.

It’s easy to see why party organizers and advocates of campaign finance deregulation chafe at the current regime. After all, if unrestricted super PACs and non-disclosing tax-exempt groups can spend millions in elections with no limits, why can’t the parties? A wave of commentary has enumerated the parties’ salutary role promoting robust competition, and moderating partisan polarization by appealing to the voters in the center.

But the parties’ demise goes way beyond McCain-Feingold. And eliminating the cap on “base” contributions to candidates and parties, which many conservatives now endorse, would not necessarily strengthen the parties. While the McCain-Feingold law put $591 million in soft money that the parties had raised in 2002 out of reach, they quickly made up for that loss. In the 2004 elections, the parties collected more in “hard” money subject to contribution limits — $1.5 billion — than they had in hard and soft money combined ($1.1 billion) before the ban took effect.

Outside spending did increase — the so-called 527 groups came that came into vogue following the ban boosted their receipts to $424 million, an increase of some $273 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. But the big non-party spending jump didn’t come until after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling to deregulate independent campaign spending. In 2012, the first presidential race to follow that ruling, outside spending topped $1 billion.

If the parties had really spent their unrestricted money on get-out-the-vote activities and party building before the McCain-Feingold law took effect, soft money nostalgia might be more compelling. But a parade of former and current elected officials who defended that ban in court testified that the money was spent not on grass-roots activity or state and local elections, but on high-dollar ads; in 2000, 92 percent of those ads did not even identify the parties.

The former members of Congress testified that they “were expected to raise significant amounts of money for their party committees, were given incentives to do so, and could face sanctions if they did not.” They also detailed how party officials relied on lawmakers to net big donors and described “an inseverable link between the national political parties, their congressional fundraising committees and federal candidates.”

That real-world account contrasts sharply with the Supreme Court’s conclusion in McCutcheon that the parties act as a “buffer” that protects lawmakers from the corrupting influence of large contributions. Soft money gave the parties plenty of money to spend on ads, but it also gave them a black eye in the form of foreign money scandals, White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers.

Unrestricted money would strengthen the parties’ bottom line, but it may arguably weaken them institutionally in the long run. Parties succeed over time on the strength of their ideas, and on their ability to appeal to a broad base of voters, reflected materially in the support of small donors.

Notes former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, who heads the Campaign Legal Center and the political activity law practice at Caplin & Drysdale: “A couple of people writing big checks leaves you a hollowed-out party structure.”

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

March 25, 2014

Democrats’ Anti-Koch Attacks Have a Familiar Ring

There is an oddly familiar ring to Democrats’ escalating attacks on the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

In 2010, then-White House adviser David Axelrod decried the undisclosed, unrestricted money bankrolling outside conservative groups as “a threat to our democracy.” This year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been blasting the Kochs as “un-American” and accusing them of “trying to buy America.”

The comparison bodes poorly for Democrats now dumping millions into their campaign to demonize the Kochs in what appears to be a central piece of their midterm elections strategy. In 2010, unrestricted conservative outside groups funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch helped knock House Democrats out of power in a historic GOP upset. This time around, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has already spent some $27 million attacking Democrats, focusing squarely on the party’s most vulnerable Senate incumbents.

But it’s unclear how much Democrats have learned from the last midterms. Yes, Democrats have established their own network of unrestricted super PACs, casting off any pretense of taking the political-money high road. This election’s top-spending super PAC so far is the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and liberal super PACs have spent almost double that of their conservative counterparts.

The anti-Koch attacks are now the subject of a $3 million Senate Majority PAC ad campaign — essentially a retread of liberal assaults on big money in 2010. In those elections, the first to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling in early 2010 to lift all limits on independent political spending, Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse bemoaned the “growing and pernicious effects of secret, special interest money being used to determine the outcome of our elections.”

This time, the Democrats’ attacks on big money are being leveled more personally at the Kochs and their Koch Industries Inc. conglomerate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee portrays Republicans as “addicted to Koch.” A Web ad by American Bridge 21st Century, the Democratic super PAC and tracking organization, calls the Koch agenda “bad for the middle class.”

Officials for Koch Industries have criticized the attacks as an intimidation campaign designed to deflect attention from Democrats’ own agenda. Organizers for Americans for Prosperity, a social welfare group that operates outside the disclosure rules, maintain that their objective is to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But the group’s ads hammer on vulnerable Democrats in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, and they are expanding into campaign-style organizing, door-knocking and voter mobilization. Some speculate that the anti-Koch attacks leveled by Reid and his allies are a distress signal to liberal donors.

Democrats say their complaints against the Kochs are rooted in their policy differences with Republicans. The anti-Koch campaign hammers on populist themes such as economic equity and entitlements for seniors, and portrays Republicans as the party of moneyed interests.

As American Bridge spokeswoman Gwen Rocco put it: “The real reason the Kochs have already spent tens of millions on attacks this cycle is to undermine voters’ confidence in government and drive their conservative agenda that enriches the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle and working class.”

In Arkansas, where GOP Rep. Tom Cotton is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, Pryor campaign officials estimate that Americans for Prosperity has spent $2.2 million on ads opposing the senator. Total outside spending against Pryor tops $5 million. Pryor accuses Cotton of being in the pocket of wealthy interests and argues that the representative’s votes against the farm bill and the Violence Against Women Act, for example, put him and the conservative groups that back him out of step with Arkansas voters.

“Obviously the outside money from these Republican groups is going to be large, and it’s likely that we will be outspent on TV,” Arkansas Democratic Party spokesman Patrick Burgwinkle said. “But what’s important for us is getting the message across that Congressman Cotton and these outside groups are just too reckless for Arkansas.”

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has launched a digital media campaign showing her GOP opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, as aligned with the Kochs’ “bad-for-the-middle-class” policies. Americans for Prosperity has spent $8.3 million on ads opposing Hagan, according to numbers released by Hagan’s campaign.

Republicans dismiss the anti-Koch attacks as a sign of Democratic desperation. In 2010, voters largely ignored Democrats’ assaults on secret, unrestricted campaign money and delivered the House to Republicans in a 68-seat sweep. Democrats’ recent anti-Koch assaults are more rooted in substantive differences with Republicans on issues such as Medicare and the minimum wage. Still, it remains to be seen whether their campaign against moneyed interests will resonate any better with voters in the 2014 midterm elections than it did four years ago.

March 3, 2014

The Perfect Thing to Do on Your Snow Day

Getting bored on your snow day? Check out the top photos from last week, Feb. 24-28.

Enjoy these great moments caught by Bill Clark and Tom Williams — and stay warm!

By Meredith Dake Posted at 12:40 p.m.
Uncategorized

January 29, 2014

Caption This Photo: Vice President Joe Biden

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

We’d love your suggestions for a caption to go with this classic moment of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., captured right before  Tuesday’s State of the Union address by CQ Roll Call photographer Tom Williams. Leave you caption in the comments below or tweet us @rollcall.

PHOTOS: Captured Moments From SOTU 2014

Enjoy the below slideshow that documents memorable moments from the 2014 State of the Union captured by CQ Roll Call photographers Bill Clark and Tom Williams.

January 27, 2014

PHOTOS: Best Pictures From SOTU Past

Check out some of the best moments from previous State of the Union addresses captured by CQ Roll Call photographers.

You can browse more Roll Call photos and buy them here.

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