The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the so-called soft money ban on state and local parties, prompting opponents of the restriction to turn their pleas for repeal to Congress.
Although proponents of political money limits cheered the decision, they said that new Justice Neil Gorsuch’s position on the case confirmed their fears about his campaign finance views.
The ban stems from the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, which prohibited unlimited and unregulated large contributions to party committees known as soft money. The high court on Monday affirmed without hearing oral arguments a lower court ruling that denied the Louisiana Republican Party’s challenge to soft money bans for state and local parties.
“I’m disappointed in the decision, but it’s not that big of a surprise,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member who manages the Election Law Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s now pretty clear that the court is just not going to get into this part of McCain-Feingold and if the parties want these provisions to change, they’re going to have to go to Congress.”
On Capitol Hill, von Spakovsky’s side will meet intense resistance from Democrats, even as those who favor campaign finance deregulation have a pivotal ally in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who led the legal challenge to the McCain-Feingold law. They also have an ally in White House Counsel Donald McGahn, a former Federal Election Commission member.
“By rejecting the challenge to political party soft money bans, the Supreme Court has once again affirmed contribution limits as constitutional,” said Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, chairman of the House’s Democracy Reform Task Force. “Going forward, we must remain vigilant against efforts to further erode reasonable restrictions on big money in politics.”
Sarbanes and outside advocates of new restrictions on political money said they were dismayed that Gorsuch, along with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, went out of his way to say he wanted the court to hear oral arguments on the Louisiana case.
“It’s troubling that we’re seeing the most recent appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Gorsuch, side with the most conservative on this, Justice Thomas,” said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, which led a campaign against Gorsuch’s nomination over political money concerns.
Gorsuch “is way out of the mainstream. He’s very extreme when it comes to reviewing these questions about who has power in American politics,” Donnelly said.
Still, political money and good government groups said the Supreme Court’s decision was significant in that it yet again upheld limits on donations to political parties and candidates.
“The most important thing here is the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, we understand these limits are important because there are remaining questions here about corruption and the appearance of corruption,’” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at the bipartisan campaign finance group Issue One. “It’s not that parties can corrupt our candidates. The point is to say that parties can be used to circumvent the protections and can be hollowed out just to be these laundromats for large donors to gain influence.”
Daniel Weiner, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision was a good one for those who think decisions about money and politics ought to be made by the legislative branch, not the judicial branch.
As for whether Congress may tackle a campaign finance overhaul soon, Weiner said he’s not naive about the prospects. Advocates for rolling back campaign finance limits have said the GOP Congress and the Trump administration may prove a friendly climate for their agenda.
McConnell, whose spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the recent case, has in the past backed appropriations riders to change campaign finance rules.
“The big questions will be: Is there going to be any appetite to do some sort of bipartisan reform, an appetite to do nothing, or will we see some new budget rider that tries to do what the court just refused to do?” Weiner said.
BY JOE WILLIAMS AND ERIN MERSHON
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a warning to staffers last week amidst growing frustration at the amount of information leaking from private Republican discussions on repealing the 2010 health law.
At a meeting of his health care working group last Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican excused all non-leadership staffers after expressing annoyance over the number of leaks about the private discussions, GOP senators and aides told Roll Call.
He was particularly frustrated with a report that cited a verbatim conversation that took place during a prior meeting, according to one lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Staff has since been allowed back into the meetings, the lawmaker said, explaining that the initial dismissal was viewed as a warning. A McConnell spokesman did not respond to request for comment.
The heightened sensitivity comes as the GOP is coming to grips with the difficult task ahead of them in educating all 52 Republican senators on intricate health care policy and securing the necessary votes to pass a complex piece of legislation out of the chamber.
Members of the McConnell-led working group charged with writing the repeal bill have been meeting twice a week in a room just off the Senate floor, airing ideas and sharing their positions on issues like how and when to wind down the health care law’s Medicaid expansion or how to make the replacement plan’s tax credits more generous. The House passed its own legislation to repeal and replace the law earlier this month.
Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, a member of the group, said the number of leaks “seems normal.” He also pushed back against criticism of the Republicans’ decision to craft the bill behind closed doors.
“If every idea was voiced out there then there would be opposition to every idea before it gets finalized,” the Wyoming Republican told Roll Call.
While membership for the group initially included just 13 all-male senators, it has since been opened up to any GOP member interested in attending. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the change was made last week.
Despite that, Republican leadership has faced criticism for the manner in which the legislation is being crafted. Several members say the bill is not expected to go through the formal committee process. GOP leaders defend their methods and say all Republican senators will have the opportunity to contribute to the measure, but some members are warning that the conference as a whole will need ample time to review any final product.
“Look at the House, they didn’t have a [CBO] score and they voted on something and I think that if the score comes back poor there’ll be a lot of criticisms of those House members,” Cassidy, who will be attending his first working group meeting this week, told Roll Call. “Senators will be cognizant of that.”
Outside of the working group, Republicans also regularly discuss aspects of the repeal legislation at thrice-weekly luncheons. Leadership has touted those lunch meetings as a key part of the overall discussions within the conference on the pending repeal legislation and previously used them as justification for the private working group.
But two GOP lawmakers, speaking on background in order to discuss internal discussions, said keeping members updated on the working group’s conversations during the lunches was proving too difficult. During working group sessions, one of the lawmakers said, Republicans can listen to experts explain in-depth health care policy changes under consideration, a more difficult task as senators come in and out of lunch.
Republicans have avoided placing any hard deadlines on the effort, but until the GOP finishes its work on health care the rest of their ambitious legislative agenda is on hold. McConnell, for his part, has tried to shift the attention to Democrats who, until this point, have refused to work with Republicans on any legislation that would repeal major portions of the law.
“Senate Democrats are essentially telling the American people that they are OK with the status quo — that Obamacare’s collapsing markets, double-digit premium increases, and counties with only one insurer represent the new normal for health care in our country,” he said on the Senate floor last week. “I hope our friends on the other side of the aisle will agree to join us in bringing some relief to the families who need it.”