Dysfunctional politics led a coalition of independent conservative groups and hardline Republican lawmakers to push for a showdown on Obamacare over a continuing resolution to fund the government and thus to shut down the government for more than two weeks. But what empowered a fracturing Republican Party to bring chaos on Washington? The short answer: a one-two punch rewriting of campaign finance law that drove legislators to heed their own parties’ extreme elements. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has blamed the 2002 McCain-Feingold reform law, calling it “the worst thing that ever happened to Congress.” By taking unlimited “soft money” away from the political parties, but especially from the Republican Party, the law empowered the nascent insurgents at the Club for Growth. President Barack Obama said it was the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that “contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now.” Post-Citizens United, money from independent groups has poured into elections.
Republican lawmakers who once held safe seats now worry about a primary challenge from the tea party right, funded in part by the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks or Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint’s network. But it’s the interaction between McCain-Feingold’s blow to political parties and Citizens United’s boost to independent groups that has really done the damage.
To be fair, campaign finance isn’t the only explanation for the crisis in Washington. Other reasons range from the abolition of earmarks to the increasing geographic ideological division of American voters. “The causes of polarization are extremely complex,” said University of California, Irvine, election law professor Rick Hasen.
Nonetheless, before they can clash over policy and budgets, members of Congress have to get elected and reelected. That’s how money can shift priorities.