The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why dark money is likely to keep flowing in campaigns, in 1 Senate hearing

A Senate Rules committee hearing opened Wednesday with a big announcement: This year, Senate Democrats plan to hold a floor vote on a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to overturn Citizens United and other controversial Supreme Court campaign finance decisions. The next two hours illustrated why the bill has little chance of success in a divided Congress.

The hearing was set to examine the influence of political groups financed by secret donors, but it did more to expose the current chasm between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to regulating money in politics.

Those on the left – along with independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who chaired the session – spent the morning bemoaning the flood of unregulated money into campaigns.

“I'm deeply worried about the future of our democracy,” said King, who later held up a chart showing a dizzying web of nonprofits that make up the political network backed by Charles and David Koch and other conservative donors.

Those on the right used the session to decry campaign finance restrictions as attempts to curtail free speech.

“Let’s stop pretending more speech somehow threatens our democracy,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. He had his own chart: a blown-up text of the First Amendment.

Both sides squabbled about the Koch brothers, who have emerged as this year’s political Rorschach test – victims or villains, depending on your perspective.

Roberts said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “has a fixation with the Koch family that can only be described as bizarre.”

"I think it's because he fears they pose a threat to his hold on power or the majority," the senator from Kansas added. "He wants them to stop talking.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) scoffed. “When the Supreme Court or any of my colleagues say that the Koch brothers' First Amendment rights are being deprived, that they're not being heard, it defies common sense, it defies logic,” Schumer said.

The lack of consensus appeared to pain King, who tried to persuade his GOP colleagues that subterranean forms of campaign spending pose a threat to both sides.

“This isn’t a partisan issue," the senator from Maine said. "I think this nondisclosed money is a danger to the republic, no matter who it favors, one year to the next. As the Old Testament says, ‘If you sow the wind, you'll reap the whirlwind.’ ”

The closest the two sides came to finding common ground was when GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas endorsed the idea of immediately disclosing contributions to candidates — but as part of doing away with caps on such donations, an idea that is anathema to advocates of strict campaign finance rules.

Still, King, who said he is going to try to push for a floor vote on a disclosure bill this year, seized on Cruz’s words.

“I’m certainly going to follow up with him,” the Maine senator said in an interview after the hearing. “You take what you can get, and nudge 'em.”