POLITICS
11/12/2014 07:34 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Remember Who Held Election's Purse Strings As Congress Sets 2015 Agenda

Tom Williams via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Following the Republican wave that swept away the Democratic Senate majority last week, reporters, advocates and pundits debated the efficacy of the estimated $3.7 billion in political spending shelled out over the past 22 months.

Articles pondered whether all the money spent even mattered. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's funds were widely deemed wasted, as were the millions spent by Mayday PAC, led by campaign finance reformer Lawrence Lessig. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce crowed in a blog post, "Out of the 15 primary races, runoffs, and special elections the U.S. Chamber invested in, we were successful in 14." And each outside group's return on investment on Nov. 4 was ranked.

Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the leading House proponent of campaign finance reform, thinks much of this coverage missed the mark. While the Election Day results matter, they are only a means to the real end -- the legislation and regulation that does and does not move in the next Congress.

"A lot of the moneyed impact," said Sarbanes, "and in some ways, the most sinister is on the governing that happens after."

The impact of the money spent on the 2014 election is already evident in the governing agenda outlined by the incoming Republican leadership. These policies hew remarkably closely to the proposals long advanced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- which was instrumental in helping the GOP finally win control of the Senate.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), likely the next Senate majority leader, pointed to free trade pacts and corporate tax reform as possible areas of bipartisan action. The Chamber of Commerce has been a leading advocate of corporate tax reform that would reduce rates on businesses and provide a tax holiday for repatriated funds from overseas.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, similarly told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, "I would love to see us do something in the area of tax reform." On "Fox New Sunday," Sen.-elect Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also endorsed action on tax reform, as well as the Keystone XL pipeline and transportation -- all areas in which the chamber has been pushing for movement.

The Chamber of Commerce spent $35 million in independent funds from undisclosed donors to help the GOP take control of the Senate. While it dropped a lot of money to defeat Democrats in the general election, the role it played in Republican primaries fighting off tea party challengers of the ilk that sunk Republican's Senate hopes in the past two elections was absolutely critical.

The chamber is the nation's largest business lobby, but it was not the only industry group investing millions in the 2014 election in order to prime Congress for passage of its agenda. The American Chemistry Council, the trade association for the chemicals and plastics industry, spent $2.4 million on direct electoral ads to help elect Republican senators this year.

"We had a strong interest in seeing the leadership of the Senate change hands," American Chemistry Council spokeswoman Anne Kolton said. Asked if the surge in the group's election spending was tied to its legislative agenda, she added, "Sure, yeah."

The lobby group's main priority in the next Congress is an update of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Kolton identified Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as the key obstacle to moving that legislation.

Ending the Democratic Senate majority takes the gavel out of Boxer's hand next year. Those in the industry predict that Republicans will pursue reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Spending by corporate trade groups to elect a more amenable Congress dovetails with a broader shift in campaign finance this electoral cycle. While the 2014 election is projected to set a record for overall spending for midterm contests, it is doing so with far fewer donors than past cycles.

As the Center for Responsive Politics wrote days before the election, "The 2014 midterms may well mark the election cycle in which the small donor got left behind." It added, "[O]utside money will have played an outsized role. And the number of identified individual donors will shrink, meaning more money will have come from fewer people."

The increasing inequality in campaign funding stems from the Supreme Court's decisions in the 2010 Citizens United and 2014 McCutcheon cases. The former, along with a subsequent lower court decision, allowed unlimited independent spending by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals -- a boon for groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the American Chemistry Council. The latter eliminated limits on the aggregate amount a single donor could give to campaigns in one election cycle. The result overall has been a radical empowerment of the most deep-pocketed interests.

The first wave of mega-donors contributing to as many candidates and party committees as they desired was largely made up of members of the nation's corporate class, including casino magnates Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn and energy billionaires Charles and David Koch. A large portion of the outside spending that overtook many of this year's most important Senate races came from the political network run by the Kochs. Their political machine spent at least $77 million on electoral and issue ads targeting Democratic candidates and tens of millions more on efforts to get out the vote among conservatives.

As such political spending increases while the number of donors drops, congressional lawmakers needing money for their races and their allies become more beholden to the wealthiest Americans -- which often means their corporate interests. Legislative politics skews to the benefit of big business.

"If we don't get a handle on this," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, "I fear that this country will move towards an oligarchic form of government."

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