The money behind the fiscal cliff hardliners

Plan B opponents drew major support from outside groups. What does that mean?

The fiscal cliff deal reached on Tuesday reflects a depressing new routine in Washington, DC: the federal government lurching from crisis to crisis as basic budget measures are approved only after bitter, down-to-the-wire negotiations. In these debates, Speaker of the House John Boehner has often proven unable to control what the New York Times described as a “new breed of Republicans”: fiercely conservative, averse to cutting deals, and willing to defy party leadership rather than relent on core principles.

The increasing intransigence of the most conservative Republicans on tax and spending measures raises an important question: Who funds these members’ campaigns?

The answer is, in part, that many of the most hard-core House Republicans represent safe seats where relatively little money is spent on elections. But when Republican hardliners do find themselves in competitive races, their biggest contributors are often new outside spending groups rather than traditional campaign donors, an analysis by CJR of data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics found.

The graph below shows total spending on behalf of the GOP’s fiscal hardliners from their biggest backers, along with what those same groups spent to support all House members:

The members we selected for this analysis were the core of the Republican Party’s conservative wing in the 112th Congress: the 26 representatives on record as opposing Boehner’s “Plan B” compromise proposal in the fiscal cliff negotiations. These are the members who were willing to defy their party leadership and sink its negotiating strategy rather than fall in line behind a deal they found unacceptable. CJR counted both traditional campaign contributions and independent expenditures by outside spending groups made in support of these members or attacking their opponents during the 2012 election cycle.

The two biggest spenders on behalf of this group are super PACs whose practices have recently drawn sharp scrutiny: the Now or Never PAC, which spent $2.8 million in support of Plan B opponents, all on behalf of Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, and FreedomWorks of America, which spent $2.7 million to support a handful of these representatives. Other major supporters include Treasure Coast Jobs Coalition, which spent $2.1 million, all to help Florida’s Allen West, and Americans for Tax Reform, which spent $1.0 million on this group, all to benefit Florida’s Steve Southerland. (Walsh and West were recently defeated; Southerland won re-election.)

Just as the House’s hard-core caucus draws disproportionate support from outside groups, those groups often focus their resources on the most conservative Republicans. Among traditional campaign donors, meanwhile, the fiscal cliff hardliners drew their greatest support from GOP-friendly sources like retirees, health professionals, and the oil and gas industry—but those contributors did not seem to have a particular preference for Plan B opponents. The hard-line Republicans we examined collected a bit more, on average, from retirees than the typical incumbent GOP House member, and a bit less from health professionals and the oil and gas industry. (Many of the new outside spending groups, like the traditional donors, also spent additional funds on Senate and presidential races.)

These findings raise several questions that journalists should examine in greater detail. The most obvious is where the outside spending is coming from. This money is harder to track back to individual donors or economic interests than direct contributions, but the public deserves to know who is underwriting these representatives.

Indeed, several strong investigative reports have already shed light on the donors behind the outside spending groups backing the most conservative Republicans. A standout was the Washington Post’s gripping account of the internal rupture at FreedomWorks—and the central role of Richard J. Stephenson, a reclusive millionaire, in financing the group, determining which candidates it supported, and even picking its leaders. Two campaign watchdog groups have called on the Justice Department to investigate $12 million in donations to FreedomWorks by Stephenson, which they allege he illegally routed through shell companies to avoid disclosing his identity.

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. Tags: ,