For weeks now, Democrats have lamented the power of the Koch brothers, and their ability to largely fund without public disclosure. But it’s worth remembering who incentivized the Kochs to do this: the 47 Democrats, 11 Republicans and 1 independent in the Senate who voted in favor of the McCain-Feingold law of 2002.
“Before McCain-Feingold, the RNC could take soft money [unregulated, unlimited donations] if they were going to use it for state elections,” something they can no longer do, explains Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission and a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
David Koch gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in soft money to the Republican National Committee in the 1990s. Nowadays, prevented from donating such large sums to the RNC, David Koch has shifted much of his effort and contributions to his organization, Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit which focuses on issue advocacy.
While the intention of McCain-Feingold was to try and limit the influence of money in politics, the effect was merely to shift money from one area to another – weakening the national parties in favor of outside groups.
“The authors would say that the overarching goal was to limit the corruption of money being involved in politics, but… it just changed around the flow of money in politics, and didn’t limit [it],” notes Jeff Patch, the Communications Director for the Center for Competitive Politics.
And outside groups are less transparent: 501(c)4s, for example, don’t require public disclosure of donors.
As outside organizations flourish, traditional party structures atrophy.
The Republican National Committee is $22 million in debt. A decade ago, large soft-money contributions could have cushioned that debt. Today the RNC is limited to retiring its debt by collecting a maximum of $30,800 from each individual donor, and corporations are prohibited from making such donations.
Prevented from making the kind of impact they could once make at the RNC, large conservative donors have found other ways to aid their causes without federal contribution limits. “The money in the past that would have gone to the political party is now going to independent [organizations],” says von Spakovsky. For example, conservative businessman Karl Rove’s 527 organization, American Crossroads, is likewise another beneficiary of McCain-Feingold.
A weakened Republican National Committee is one that will have less of an effect on the kinds of candidates the Republican Party runs. Already stifled by statutory limits on the amount it can transfer to individual campaigns the RNC will be further limited by its debt from giving to individual campaigns.
As such, Republicans will be far more interested in finding candidates who can fundraise or self-fundraise for their campaigns, rather than focusing on finding candidates who would make good legislators and agree broadly with the Republican Party’s objectives.
Indeed, the RNC being less able to give money to campaigns also means that they will be less effective in preventing their candidates from ‘going rogue’.
“Let’s assume for example that Republicans wanted to address social security, and said, ‘if you elect us, we will solve the social security problem’… they can’t even be sure that this promise is carried out even if they were elected, because each candidate is making promises to his or her constituencies [which might conflict], and doing that because of where the money is coming from,” Peter Wallison, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and author of Better Parties, Better Government, told FrumForum.
The Wild West in which Republican candidates now operate is a function of a system in which the RNC is limited from transferring large amounts to candidates – or even effectively discharging its own indebtedness.
It is worth asking: To what extent is the campaign finance structure since McCain-Feingold responsible for the tea party movement that we see today?