And Mother Jones, in an investigation of the Now or Never PAC, found that the group’s biggest funder was a nonprofit whose donors remain undisclosed. Meanwhile, Treasure Coast, which backed West, was funded by conservative megadonors including Sheldon Adelson and William Koch. Reporters should continue to uncover the funders behind these organizations, and the role of these superdonors in setting the groups’ agendas.

As journalists try to explain why Washington is locked into a seemingly endless cycle of brinksmanship and crisis, a broader question raised by the nature of the donors supporting the House’s most conservative members is what role, if any, outside money plays in both growing polarization and congressional dysfunction.

Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who turned heads earlier this year by arguing that Republican extremism and intransigence are the root of Washington’s ills, said he had not seen any evidence that fiscal hardliners adopted their positions to attract money from right-wing super PACs. But, he said, these entities may be exerting influence even in districts in which they haven’t spent money—because the fear of primary challenges sponsored by outside groups may lead representatives in deeply conservative districts to adopt hardline positions.

“As much as anything, it’s the threat of money spent against rather than money spent for,” Ornstein said. “You live by the ideological sword, you can die by it.”

Of the 26 House members who voted against Boehner’s Plan B, only four came from districts rated as competitive by the Cook Political Report. FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action, three of the most influential groups on the right, all opposed Boehner’s Plan B and lobbied representatives to vote it down. (Slate’s David Weigel has made a similar argument to Ornstein’s.)

Some other observers were skeptical about the influence of third-party groups on congressional dynamics, for different reasons. Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist and blogger, said it is much easier now for congressional bomb-throwers to raise money—but not because of the Citizens United ruling or the advent of outside spending.

The changed dynamic is “not really about campaign finance laws,” Bernstein said. Instead, it “comes from how easy it is for backbenchers to get publicity due to cable news networks, and how easy it is to give money now.”

And Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Congress and legislative gridlock, said she was doubtful that outside money unleashed by recent Supreme Court decisions was contributing to Boehner’s inability to control his caucus.

“At the margins, outside money may make it easier to win re-election,” Binder said in an email. “But party leaders always face a challenge in herding their members on tough votes.”


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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.