For the GOP, A Small Step Forward on Campaign-Finance Reform

For the GOP, A Small Step Forward on Campaign-Finance Reform

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar explains the Stop Foreign Donations Affecting Our Elections Act. 

Conservative Republicans in Congress have taken one small step on campaign-finance reform, and one (potentially) giant leap forward for bipartisanship.

Last week, Freedom Caucus conservative and Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar introduced a bill, the Stop Foreign Donations Affecting our Elections Act, that would close a loophole he says allows foreigners to illegally make online contributions to campaigns. Requiring candidates’ online-contribution forms to disclose the three-digit security code on the back of credit cards as well as a valid U.S. billing address, the bill’s supporters say, will deal a blow to foreign nationals’ ability to influence American elections.

The legislation is an admittedly limited measure that addresses an issue that some think really is not much of a problem. After all, it is already illegal for foreigners to contribute to American candidates, parties and PACs.

“Is there some evidence that credit cards are being used to get around that restriction? I have not heard of that,” Kenneth A. Gross, a D.C. election lawyer and a former associate general counsel for the FEC, told the Center for Public Integrity last week.

However, campaign-finance reform advocates say the bill’s importance goes beyond its limited practical impact. There are two things more important than the scope or potential impact of the bill for campaign-finance reformers. First, it’s noteworthy that a group of Republicans has actually introduced campaign-finance legislation.

“It’s always good to have Republicans in Congress express interest in this issue area, because for so long, McConnell has kept everyone under lock and key,” says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is a leading proponent of campaign-finance deregulation.

“If you’re a member of the Republican conference and you go out on this issue, you’re going to get slapped by leadership. It’s very difficult for members of the GOP to get too far out talking about money in politics,” McGehee adds.

For conservative organizers and former political consultant John Pudner, the bill’s introduction marks an important milestone. Pudner has been promoting a conservative campaign-finance overhaul since he launched his organization, Take Back Our Republic, nearly a year ago. Pudner is best known as the mastermind behind for Virginia Republican Dave Brat’s Tea Party ouster of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor back in 2012. Pudner has now shifted gears and is heading up Take Back Our Republic, which has set out to convince Republicans to take up the cause of campaign-finance reform. And this legislation, which Pudner helped craft, appears to be the one congressional Republicans seem most willing to back.

That could be because Democrats have been far more successful at harnessing the power of online donations. Gosar pointed out at his press conference on Capitol Hill last week that Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 took in about $500 million in small online contributions, arguing that foreigners could have been free to exploit the loophole and influence the election.

Still, the bill does have two Democratic co-sponsors, making it one of the only bipartisan campaign-finance reform bills in Congress. (Democrat Derek Kilmer of Washington and Republican Jim Renacci of Ohio introduced a bill in June aimed at fixing FEC gridlock).

“Ever since Citizens United, Capitol Hill has been highly polarized when it comes to money in politics,” says Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the public interest group Public Citizen. “Everything from disclosure to contribution limits to how to deal with super PACs…No bipartisanship. Just the mere fact that you have Democrats and Republicans [on the same bill] is a breakthrough.”

Reform advocates like McGehee and Holman are hopeful that this bill—even with limited hope of passage—signals increasing interest among Republicans to take on money in politics, even if it’s limited to foreign influence for now.

There are more substantial ways to address the illegal flow of foreign money, they argue. For instance, it’s become clear that foreign donors have been able to influence state ballot measures ever since the FEC deadlocked on that issue. Additionally, the closing the ability of foreign corporations to send money through U.S. subsidiaries is another opening for foreign influence. Finally, the rise of “dark” money in political elections is a huge opening for foreigners to quietly tip the scales in American elections, which McGehee says is by far the largest foreign loophole. Tackling any of those issues would arguably do far more to close the foreign money spigot than Gosar’s bill.

Yet, in days of unprecedented political gridlock and a Republican leader who’s dead-set on deregulating campaign finance, any inkling of reform from the right is a breakthrough.