Campaign finance reformers gain new ally

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Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, addresses the North Dakota House of Representatives at the Capitol in Bismarck, N.D., Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007.

Will Kincaid/AP

How mainstream has advocating for public financing of elections become?  So mainstream that moderate North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan endorsed the idea in an op-ed in Politico last week.

“Government is now being bought and sold on the auction block by unlimited money from anonymous buyers,” Dorgan, a former U.S. senator who was not known as a campaign finance firebrand, lamented in the piece. “The world’s greatest democracy is now witnessing the disgrace of its government being sold to the highest bidder.”

In the op-ed, Dorgan advocated for the passage of the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that he twice supported against GOP filibusters in the Senate. The bill is designed to create new reporting requirements for groups that air political advertisements.

But the campaign finance reforms Dorgan has come to embrace don’t stop there.

For the first time, Dorgan also endorsed legislation sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would create public financing for congressional elections as a “worthy idea.” And he recommended passage of a constitutional amendment aimed at mitigating the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that lifted restrictions on corporate and union spending on election ads. The op-ed also marks the first time that Dorgan has endorsed this proposal.

“I really think we’ve reached a tipping point,” Dorgan told the Center for Public Integrity in a telephone interview.

“I hope both political parties and people of all political persuasions will see this and be sickened by what’s happened to campaign finance,” he continued. “If we don’t fix this, there’s no honor in the way we select our leaders.”

While in the Senate, Dorgan never co-sponsored Durbin’s bill, and during his time as a federal candidate, he often relied on traditional sources of campaign cash: lobbyists and political action committees.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Dorgan raised more than $13.3 million over his career, with $6.6 million coming from PACs. And over his career, individual lobbyists, as well as PACs of lobbying firms, gave Dorgan about $650,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — more than any other industry except law firms.

During the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff in 2005, Dorgan returned $67,000 in contributions from clients of the super lobbyist, whom Dorgan, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, stressed that he never met. In 2006, Abramoff pled guilty to charges associated with defrauding Indian tribes that he represented of millions of dollars, as well as corrupting public officials.

Campaign finance reformers are welcoming Dorgan’s shift.

“It does not surprise me that a moderate Democrat would come out in support of a constitutional amendment,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer rights group Public Citizen. “Adding his voice helps.”

Common Cause President Bob Edgar was even more effusive.

“His statement reads as if it could have been written by Common Cause,” Edgar said. “If Byron wants to come on the board of Common Cause, we’d welcome him.”

Dorgan’s op-ed comes on the heels of the Democratic Party’s national convention in Charlotte, where officials rolled out a platform that supports “campaign finance reform, by constitutional amendment if necessary,” as well as legislation to “require greater disclosure of campaign spending,” as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.

The Citizens United ruling has also become a rallying cry among party activists and is frequently incited as a reason to donate to Democratic caucuses.

Earlier this month, for instance, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, referenced the controversial court case five times in a direct mail solicitation obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

“Please do not let the hundreds of millions in Citizens United corporate dollars decide who will run your country,” Murray pleaded.

The campaign of President Barack Obama has also emphasized the threat of “billionaires and super PACs” that are seeking to defeat the president.

“We don't have Sheldon Adelson, and with all due respect, we don't want him,” Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod said of the deep-pocketed casino magnate in an e-mail to donors Friday. “Let's make sure this election is decided by millions of Americans, not a handful of billionaires.”

Thanks to the fallout from the Citizens United ruling, spending by groups not controlled by candidates or party officials has soared. And as the spending has increased, the amount of information about who is funding these ads has decreased.

During the 2010 midterm election, 48 percent of outside spending was carried out by groups that fully disclosed their donors, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That’s down from about 93 percent during the 2006 election cycle.

The reason? A proliferation of spending by nonprofits organized under section 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6) of the U.S. tax code. While the nascent super PACs created in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling are required to disclose their donors who give at least $200, nonprofits don’t have the same requirement. Both super PACs and nonprofits are legally allowed to accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations or unions to fund political ads.

Even as more Democrats are pushing for new legislation and regulations to counteract secret election spending, there are plenty of hurdles in the way.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a recent federal court ruling that campaign finance reformers had cheered. The case, Van Hollen v. Federal Election Commission, is challenging whether groups that run issue ads ahead of an election must disclose their donors — or only donors who give “for the purpose of” funding political advertisements.

The rising levels of non-disclosure helped Dorgan — who is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank and a senior policy advisor at the lobby shop Arent Fox — realize the severity of the situation ahead of the first presidential election in the wake of Citizens United.

“This is the first campaign in which you see the full flowering of Citizens United and how ugly it is,” Dorgan said. “We ignore this at our peril.”