WASHINGTON — — Three Maryland lawmakers are leading vastly different approaches in Congress to address the growing influence of so-called super PACs and other political nonprofits that have poured money into campaigns, raising concerns about the outsized influence of special interests.
As the impact of federal court decisions rolling back campaign finance restrictions continues to play out in this year's presidential election, proposals by Maryland Reps. Chris Van Hollen, John Sarbanes and Donna Edwards — all Democrats — are aimed at overhauling the system.
Van Hollen, a Montgomery County lawmaker, is the lead sponsor of a measure that requires more disclosure from political groups. Sarbanes is changing the way he raises cash for his own campaign to put more of an emphasis on small, first-time donors. And Edwards is pushing a constitutional amendment that would give Congress more power to regulate contributions from companies.
While the proposals have little-to-no support from Republicans and are unlikely to win approval in this Congress, the ideas have drawn praise from government watchdog groups.
"There's a deep cynicism about whether the voice of the average person is being drowned out by the voice of special interests and big money in politics," said Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat. "Too much depends these days on special interest money and that has an effect on how legislation gets made."
Spending by super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money for political advertisements, has topped $89 million this year nationwide, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Restore Our Future, a group that supports Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, spent $1.3 million of that in Maryland on a series of television advertisements in the days leading up to the state's April 3 primary election. The money was the first spent by a super PAC in the state.
Super PACs are a byproduct of a 2010U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and unions to make political expenditures.
Third-party political groups have not invested heavily in Maryland, but that could change as both parties gear up to battle over the state's competitive 6th congressional district and national groups begin to engage in a fight over statewide ballot initiatives.
State voters will decide in November whether to uphold a law that allows some illegal immigrants to attend universities at in-state tuition rates and may also weigh in on a same-sex marriage law the General Assembly approved in February.
Van Hollen's proposal requires corporations, unions and super PACs to disclose spending and top donors within 24 hours of shelling out $10,000 or more on an election. That requirement would include cases in which a company or advocacy group transfers money to a nonprofit that then uses the cash to buy an advertisement.
Under current law, it's impossible to track such contribution transfers back to the original source.
"This is aimed at getting rid of secret money," said Van Hollen, who led the campaign arm of House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for the 2008 and 2010 elections. "We're going to have full-court press on this issue."
Paul S. Ryan, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said the legislation would "make a significant stride toward improving transparency in U.S. elections." A similar bill passed the House in 2010, when the chamber was controlled by Democrats, but fell one vote short of the 60 required to advance in the Senate.
Though some of the more contentious provisions of the 2010 legislation have been removed, the measure faces significant opposition. Bradley A. Smith, a former commissioner for the Federal Election Commission, argued that transfers are often benign and that tracing the money doesn't necessarily lead to more transparency, especially when it is commingled from several sources.
Democrats are less concerned with transparency, Smith suggests, than with ensuring Republicans don't have access to such donations, much of which went to the GOP in the 2010 election.
"Disclosure is intended to help people keep track of their government," said Smith, co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes many campaign finance regulations. "It's not intended to help government keep track of its people."
Separately, Van Hollen sued the FEC last April, arguing that the agency crafted regulations that allow groups to avoid disclosing donations used to pay for ads that air shortly before an election and mention a candidate but don't expressly tell voters to vote for or against that person. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sided with Van Hollen earlier this month. The decision has been appealed.
Sarbanes, meanwhile, is taking a more novel approach, voluntarily agreeing to raise 1,000 donations of $100 or less from new donors before unlocking $500,000 worth of higher-dollar donations. The idea, Sarbanes said, is to create a network of small donors that can help lawmakers break free from the clutches of wealthy givers and political action committees.
The proposal is loosely modeled after legislation in the House and Senate that has received bipartisan support. Sarbanes is a cosponsor of that bill. To make such a system an attractive option, lawmakers would be entitled to public financing for their campaign if they reached the small-donor goal.
Sarbanes, a prolific fundraiser, said he's collected about 400 small donations so far this year.
"In an age where it seems like big money is becoming more and more dominant over our politics, it seems to me we need to reach out and demonstrate to the average person that they can participate in the financing of campaigns in a meaningful way," Sarbanes said.
Of course, it is easier for a lawmaker like Sarbanes, who is considered safe for reelection in November, to take such a risk given the sizable $964,592 he had in the bank at the end of March. By comparison, his Republican challenger, Eric Delano Knowles, had $360 on hand.
Still, Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21, said he gives Sarbanes credit for leading by example.
"Even though it's easier for incumbents to do something like this, the fact of the matter is members ofCongress today raise small amounts of small contributions," he said. "It's a very small percentage — too small."
Edwards, who did not respond to a request for comment, is trying to gather support for a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to regulate donations from corporations, a response to the Supreme Court's finding that corporations are entitled to free speech protection under the Constitution.