Two days ago, it looked like moderates in the House of Representatives, led by John Boehner, had finally concocted a plan to avert a default and end the government shutdown. Then the plan went down in flames.
The deal, the result of weeks of haggling, removed proposals to defund Obamacare and left in its place a provision stripping healthcare from Congressional staffers. It was an cruel deal, but a deal nontheless, with the support of a majority in the House. And it looked like it was going to pass until this:
— Heritage Action (@Heritage_Action) October 15, 2013
Marking a vote as a key vote indicates that Heritage Action will include the vote on their scorecard gauging a representative’s conservative bonafides. It suggests their propensity to support, and fund, a primary challenge against Republicans who vote for compromise. As the National Review’s post-mortem on the collapse of the compromise put it:
A key moment in the fight came when Heritage Action announced it was “key voting” against the bill. Support was already flagging, and the decision made up the minds of many members sitting on the fence.
“People are thinking about primaries, they really are,” says a GOP chief of staff.
What followed was a conservative revolt, which killed the deal and left Congress back where it started, demonstrating the direct connection between dark money and conservative irrationality.
The Heritage Action Fund is a 501(c)4 formed shortly after Citizens United, which opened the door for such outside money groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts without disclosing donors. Heritage Action has been pushing hard for a shutdown over the Affordable Care Act since the summer, joining with the now-ubiqitious Senator Ted Cruz. The Washington Post put it well, writing that "in the topsy-turvy world of Republican politics, a 31-year-old [head of Heritage Action] can lead a shutdown of the federal government using secret funding."
Senator Ted Cruz drew the lionshare of the attention, but he has Heritage to thank for the institutional support, with the allegiance of Congressional Republicans to his cause certainly heightened by the clout of the big money behind him. Cruz himself is no stranger to this fact: he won his Texas Republican primary in large part thanks to a $5.5 million dollar infusion of outside money by the Club for Growth.
The dark money undergirding very conservative candidates. Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post charts the rise of campaign spending in Republican primaries:
The result is evident in the past month: a more extreme and intransigent party. Blumenthal notes that the same ultra-conservative dark money organizations pushing for a shutdown contributed half of all spending in Republican primaries, pushing out moderates in favor of the extreme right.
Some argue that the surge of spending outside of parties means we should just go ahead and strip the rules limiting campaign spending altogether. The hope is that this dark money will be channeled to more mainstream and accountable political organizations. This line of reasoning is raised by the plaintiffs in McCutcheon v. FEC, an upcoming Supreme Court case that would remove the aggregate limits on what individuals can donate to federal candidates, parties, or committees. But that solution is misguided. More money in the system won't lessen the influence of the wealthy, nor will it lessen the appeal of dark money groups like Heritage Action or the Club for Growth that have brought our legislative body to its knees. They've tasted the power that comes from this strategy. Only getting big money out altogether will make legislators more responsive.
Libertarian outliers may not have won this fight, but Citizens United has clearly emboldened them to defy the popular will. So while this debt-ceiling crisis is over, the perverse incentives accompanying a fidelity to the idiosyncratic (and secret) rich remain. That should terrify all of us for the next inevitable round of brinksmanship.
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