By Don Wolfensberger, CQ Roll Call (MCT)
WASHINGTON — 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 hard-line 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, Texas, “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 co-authors 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-TX) and Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX) 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.
(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.)
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