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Obama's Focus On Election Funding Spurs Guarded Optimism Among Campaign Finance Reformers

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The intense focus placed on the money being spent in the 2010 elections has had an unexpected impact within the small the world of campaign finance reformers. While the delicate system of fundraising constraints born in the wake of Watergate has crumbled -- allowing for the unprecedented flow of corporate and even anonymous funds -- the chaos has also created a modicum of opportunity. The current climate, campaign finance reformers say, may be one of the most opportune moments to spur the reform of the system.

"This is a crisitunity," said Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that reports on money in politics. "This may be the beginning of the post Citizens United chapter in history which replaces scrutiny and limits with emphasis on free speech. And that might bolster a passionate response from the public to strengthen and reinvigorate disclosure and even limits to try and counter what the courts have done."

The betting money, to be sure, is on the former. The possibility for passing any significant piece of legislation still remains remote. Prior to leaving for recess this September, the Senate made its second attempt to pass the DISCLOSE Act -- a fairly modest set of legislative changes that would require groups spending on elections to disclose their donors. Democrats fell one vote shy of cloture. The forthcoming seating of additional Republicans doesn't bode well for the bill's future chances.

But the 2010 elections and, specifically, the Democratic Party's decision to make the financing of campaigns its closing argument, has changed the dynamics. Unlike when DISCLOSE was being debated -- or, for that matter, when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations could make unlimited donations -- now there is a sharp focus on the pitfalls and shortcomings of current campaign finance law.

"I think this election is going to be a watershed moment," said Larry Noble, nationally recognized authority on campaign finance and lawyer at the firm Skadden, Arps. "Historically, there have been certain times with a confluence of events where you have campaign finance reform and concerns about campaign finance reform elevated. And I think we are going through one of those periods... The question this time around is, is the amount of money that is going to be spent by these ads, the [501]c4s and other organizations -- will it be enough to keep the issue alive after the election?"

It's a question White House and Congressional Democrats have been asking as well, and one that could be answered by the results of the election. If the party suffers a surprisingly mild loss in November, much of the credit will go to the issue of undocumented conservative funds and how it served to rally voters. That, in turn, would give lawmakers the green light to push DISCLOSE again or, perhaps, to grant a vote to the Fair Elections Act, which would allow for the public financing of elections.

"I think this is an issue that needs to be addressed again, absolutely," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said at a briefing for reporters on Tuesday. "My feeling is -- whether the beneficiaries of the ads are Republicans or in the few cases Democrats -- people should know. I trust the American people and I want the American people to have the information they need to make the judgments they should."

And yet, for reformers and officials on the Hill, the most optimistic scenario for passing legislation still remains the equivalent of a hail Mary pass. Even if the election were to deliver better-than-expected results for Democrats, the screws would still need to be tightened on a group of moderate Senate Republicans. And there is no guaranteeing that the politicians who stand to benefit from raising massive amounts of money would feel compelled to disclose or limit those donations.

"We may end up with a Congress that, because of the money that was spent in 2010, is more hostile to taking action on campaign finance reform," said Robert Weissman, president of the good-government group Public Citizen. "It is hypothetically possible that after the election, Senators [Olympia] Snowe, [Susan] Collins and [Scott] Brown will be ashamed about what has happened and get us to 60 votes. But you wouldn't want to bet on it."

There is, of course, historical precedent for crisis breeding opportunity with respect to good government initiatives. After Watergate, limits were placed on the size and scope of election donations. When "soft money" contributions from 527 groups began dominating elections, the response was McCain-Feingold Act. And after uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was caught bilking clients and gaming the legislative system, Congress responded with new ethics laws.

Citizens United may have dismantled the campaign finance law framework, but it's not entirely clear if the political process has reached that critical tipping point.

"A lot of issues are cyclical. There is chance to work on them, especially after a scandal," said Weissman, "But campaign finance is different than, say, ethics reform. The system is systemically corrupt."

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