Sen. McConnell's position on money in politics is about power, not ideology.

By: David Donnelly, Executive Director and Adam Smith, Communications Director

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sen. Tom Udall’s campaign finance amendment.

Sen. McConnell’s testimony will couch his opposition to the amendment, which would simply give Congress and state legislatures the power to regulate campaign spending and fundraising, as a principled position in support of the First Amendment. With complete disregard for the experience of everyday Americans, he'll frame his opposition to the Udall Amendment as an idealistic belief in free speech for all.
 
But, Sen. McConnell’s opposition to such regulations is a lot more complicated. His shifting position on the issue over the years shows it’s less about ideological differences and more about building and maintaining political power. 

  • In 1989, Sen. McConnell supported legislation that would have “would have required disclosure of independent groups or individuals who intended to spend more than $25,000 promoting or attacking a candidate.”
  • In 1993, McConnell said the Republican campaign reform agenda "would restrict the power of special interest PACS, stop the flow of all soft money, keep wealthy individuals from buying public office."
  • In 1996, he repeated his support for transparency in the pages of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Public disclosure of campaign contributions and spending should be expedited so voters can judge for themselves what is appropriate,” he wrote.
  • But then things changed course--in 1998, he became chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and then later, Minority Leader. He then sued over the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and launched an attack on the DISCLOSE Act after Citizens United v. FEC. 

The truth is, McConnell’s position on “free speech” is more about opportunism and political point scoring than a love of the First Amendment.

  • In 1999, as the Senate was debating the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Sen. McConnell, then chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent threatening letters to executives at member companies of the Committee for Economic Development because the group spoke out in favor of the bill. The CED president at the time, Charles Kolb, referred to the letters as “thuggish.” “His letters sounded like a heavy-handed threat – 'Continue to do business with these guys, and you won't do business with us,” Kolb said at the time.
  • Sen. McConnell doesn’t think politicians like him are beholden to their campaign donors, except when he does. A $1,000 donation from the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council to his opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, showed she “stands behind Barack Obama, Harry Reid and the War on Coal they are waging," but $2,000 from an “anti-coal activist” from Texas to McConnell doesn’t mean anything.
  • Last fall, Sen. McConnell was granted time to have his opinion heard in the McCutcheon v. FEC case regarding aggregate contribution limits. His brief argued, essentially, that all limits should be thrown out. When questioned about the brief, his office released a multiple-Pinocchio worthy statement trying to obscure his position.

A national poll recently released by CBS News found that 71% of Americans support limits on what individuals can donate to politicians and 76% spending limits on outside groups. Last fall, Lake Research polling conducted on behalf of Public Campaign Action Fund found 53% of voters have “very serious doubts” about McConnell’s support for unlimited campaign donations.

The Chamber of Commerce, a trade association of the nation’s largest corporations, has pledged to spend “whatever it takes" to keep McConnell in the Senate. American Crossroads, an outside group run by a former McConnell aide, says re-electing him is a “top priority.”

It’s no wonder he doesn’t want any limits or more transparency in politics.