To say the Republican majority has struggled with the influence of outside groups during the past two congresses is to put it mildly. These groups have stymied progress on major legislation, counseled members into bad strategic stances with serious economic and political consequences, and generally frustrated House and Senate compromise. From the government shutdown, Hurricane Sandy relief, and the various debt limit bills, these groups have made Speaker Boehner’s job very difficult. Two big factors make House leaders’ job in the 113th Congress more difficult than in previous years. The first is the ban on earmarks. The second is the growth of outside money in politics. The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision may ameliorate, to a degree, the influence of outside money by potentially making parties more powerful fundraisers. Will this have a huge effect on House politics? The likely answer is some, but not much.
The 2010 Citizens United decision allows outside groups to raise and spend money more easily than formal party organizations. Rather than develop vast networks of small donors, these groups could raise huge sums of money from only a few individuals. By easing fundraising barriers, their influence in Congress grew because they could credibly threaten sitting members of Congress. They became better suited to bolster or challenge members that did not share their views.
Citizens United also somewhat trivialized traditional fundraising techniques. For example, in 2010 Tom Marino, a candidate mired in scandal allegations, was able to unseat incumbent Chris Carney. While 2010 was a wave election bringing 63 new Republicans to the House, Marino probably should not have been among them. Throughout the campaign Marino trailed Carney by well over a million dollars in fundraising and spending. Yet over the last 2 months of the campaign the ratings shifted from Carney’s favor to Marino’s. Outside groups were able to step in just before the election, close the funding gap and give Marino enough help to pull off the upset. Prior to 2010, this was a virtually impossible scenario. Large funding gaps were difficult to overcome in the final months of an election, even with support from the party. However, today outside groups and Super PACs play a much more central role in elections. In this sense, Citizens United skewed factors that normally forecast candidate success away from traditional predictors like candidate and party driven campaign fundraising, and toward outside influence.
That electoral influence has affected politics within the Republican majority. In recent years, Members have paid closer attention to the key vote alerts sent by outside groups. And at times this has pulled the majority coalition in different directions. In the 113th Congress these groups have actively opposed several leadership priorities, thwarted leadership strategies, and some have started “Fire Boehner” whip lists on their websites. In many ways Citizens United made “getting 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow,” as Speaker Boehner put it, much harder.
That said, campaign funding is only one piece of a broader change in leadership politics. Over the past few years leaders have lost critical tools needed to build coalitions. Prior to 2011, earmarks and campaign contributions were the carrots in the leaders’ pockets. Since then, earmarks were banned and direct campaign contributions were weakened by the growth and quantity of outside money. As a result, leaders’ tools have become more punitive. Rather than sweetening deals, they must rely on negative consequences. Rather than giving something to members, they are more often taking something away. For example, rather than creating jobs in members’ districts through pork-barrel projects, members are threatened, committee assignments are stripped, a member’s bill may be pulled from the floor schedule, and their proposed floor amendments may not be made in order on the floor. In other words members are threatened with less legislative and political influence. This is not to say that these strategies are altogether new. However, today they are the few remaining tools left to the leadership. In this light it may come as no surprise that leaders’ relationship with their rank-and-file has chafed over the past 3-4 years.
So while some expect the McCutcheon decision to empower party leaders, it is not likely to have a big effect. First, the decision affects campaign funding but only slightly. Leaders can coordinate with national party organizations to spread money around more generously. However, caps on contributions to individual candidates still exist. The decision will likely bring outside spending and formal party spending into better balance. However, outside group spending is not going away. And at times, the party may have to fight those groups to keep incumbents loyal to the leadership. It’s likely the party will still lose some of these battles.
These changes will likely have the greatest influence on “middling Republicans,” those not in the Tea Party camp but nonetheless influenced by outside group threats. It’s possible that many of these lawmakers will gravitate closer to the leaders over the next few years. However, as mentioned above, that is hardly a guarantee.
On the other hand, members closely aligned with Tea Party groups are unlikely to suddenly change fundraising strategies, find new money networks, or cozy up to lawmakers they routinely challenge or undermine in public. In other words, don’t expect the Tea Party coalition to suddenly start jumping into Boehner’s wheelbarrow as a result of McCutcheon. Their independence from the leadership will be significant in congresses to come. And without the cooperation of this group, Boehner lacks a majority. So, on many issues, we will likely find ourselves in the same place.