More setbacks for campaign finance rules; lawmakers, staffers get free golf

By Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's turning into the year of setbacks for campaign finance regulations.

A federal appeals court this week tossed out parts of Connecticut's sweeping campaign finance law, marking the latest in a series of dramatic defeats for advocates of strong limits on campaign contributions and other political activities.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, based in New York, struck down Connecticut's ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists and objected to a "trigger" system used to determine when public financing kicks in for candidates. The decisions immediately upended Connecticut's gubernatorial race, since two of three major candidates have received matching funds from the program.

The rulings come amid a spate of other challenges moving ahead in courts across the country, including lawsuits targeting public financing systems in Arizona, Florida and Wisconsin. Last month, the U.S Supreme Court ordered Arizona to halt the use of matching funds for publicly funded candidates until it decides whether to consider a constitutional challenge to the system.

In Florida, GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, who has spent $21 million of his own money in a challenge to party rival Bill McCollum, filed suit last week alleging that the state's matching-fund system has forced him to slow his spending.

The developments have further bolstered critics of campaign finance regulations, who won a landmark victory in January when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited funds on political advertising.

"I think there's a growing sense that these so-called reforms really haven't accomplished that much and there are core First Amendment issues that need to be dealt with," said former Federal Election Commission chairman Bradley A. Smith, who now heads the Center for Competitive Politics. "I do think we've gone over to the offense, and I feel good about that."

Proponents of campaign finance limits, meanwhile, are clearly disheartened. The developments come at the same time that Senate Democrats are struggling -- and so far failing -- to muster 60 votes in favor of broad new disclosure requirements for corporations, unions and nonprofit groups. "What we're seeing is a battle against all forms of campaign finance legislation," said Tara Malloy, associate counsel at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. "We are really seeing a hurricane of sorts in the campaign finance world."

Still, Malloy and others emphasized that the Connecticut ruling also preserved important aspects of that state's law, including a ban on political contributions from state contractors. "I think what's encouraging is the 2nd Circuit said loud and clear that the constitutionality of public financing systems in general is not in doubt," said Monica Youn of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. "There is a tendency to over-interpret the negatives."

Ethics waivers for free golf

Some lawmakers and their staffers are getting free golf this month courtesy of sponsorship by corporate members of two exclusive clubs on Capitol Hill -- and waivers from the ethics rules that prohibit it.

The National Democratic Club and the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill offer lawmakers and staff free play as part of their annual golf fundraisers, which draw donations from corporations to pay for the clubs' operations, according to reporting this week from the Sunlight Foundation's Party Time Web site, which tracks political fundraisers.

The clubs are private groups that have grown up in the shadow of the Capitol, serving as watering holes for lawmakers and lobbyists and hosting campaign events (almost 600 this year combined, according to the site). Under ethics rules, lawmakers would not be able to accept the free games, because the clubs aren't considered charities, but the participants were given waivers after a request to one of the congressional ethics committees.

The National Democratic Club will hold its fundraiser at Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls on Monday with a cost of $6,000 to $8,000 for a foursome. The Capitol Hill Club, as the Republican group is also known, held its event Monday at Belle Haven Country Club in Alexandria, with participants paying $3,000 for a foursome and sponsorship of a hole where corporate names were displayed.

"It was successful," said Stan Lawson, the Capitol Hill Club's general manager. The event had 35 foursomes, some of whom played free or gave in-kind contributions. One unidentified lawmaker and five staffers attended the annual event, now in its 24th year, Lawson said.

Dana Ehlman, the operations manager at the National Democratic Club, declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post.

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