Why the Lame Duck Session Might Be Campaign Finance Advocates’ Last Hope

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Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Most campaign finance reform advocates are calling for greater restrictions — or at least stricter disclosure requirements — on donations from outside groups in response to the flood of spending in the 2010 elections. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), one of the few Republicans this election cycle who’s facing a moderately strong Democratic challenge in his Sacramento-area race, agrees that outside spending is a problem, but he thinks the main problem isn’t the lack of restrictions on outside groups — it’s the caps placed on direct donations to candidates.

Why does Lungren’s opinion matter? Assuming he wins re-election and Republicans capture a majority of seats in the House, he’s slated to take over the chairmanship of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance legislation. Last week he sat down with the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Morain and explained his ideas more fully:

As Lungren’s sees it, the main problem with the system is that there are caps on direct donations to candidates. An individual cannot give more than $2,400 per election to a congressional candidate. Lungren would obliterate limits, permitting donations of unlimited size directly to candidates and political parties. That, he says, would limit the role of independent groups. [...]

“You’re going to have money flowing, and I would rather have the money flowing to the candidates,” Lungren said. “You’d still have a lot of money, but (donors) would be identified with the party and with the candidate.”

Lungren might be right that doing away with direct campaign contributions would go a long way toward cutting out the middleman of outside groups, but he’s also jumping into the one area of campaign finance where the Supreme Court still holds that the threat of corruption and quid pro quo arrangements between donors and candidates remains very real. His idea is basically a nonstarter with those seeking to reform campaign finance laws in Washington, but he’s the guy that they’d most likely have to go through to get anything passed in the House.

Lame duck sessions aren’t known for passing legislation that’s at all controversial, but some advocates are arguing that it’s Congress’ last chance to get something meaningful pertaining to donor disclosure or public financing passed, and Lungren’s remarks are doubtless adding urgency to that mission.

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