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Steve Israel says unchecked money is bad for politics

Rep. Steve Israel says among the reasons he's

Rep. Steve Israel says among the reasons he's not running for a ninth term is the effort needed to raise funds for his campaign. Credit: Heather Walsh

WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve Israel argued in a speech to a liberal group Tuesday that money is becoming essentially the root of all evil in politics.

Israel has spoken out against super PACs and dark-money nonprofit groups since announcing in January he would not be running for a ninth term this year, a decision he said was based in part he’s tired of spending so much time raising campaign funds.

“There has always been money in politics. There will always be money in politics. But politics shouldn’t just be about the money,” Israel, a Huntington Democrat, told a small audience at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a think tank and activist group aligned with Democrats.

But Israel only hinted at the real problem with the surge of independent expenditures by outside groups in House races — that in two of the past three elections, Democrats have lost dozens of seats because, in part, there have been more outside ads to help Republicans than Democrats.

Israel said the “line of demarcation” between the old and new eras of money in politics came in 2010, the year the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case, which allowed unlimited spending by super PACs and dark money groups on ads in federal political races.

Data gathered by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute backs Israel, who felt the brunt of this shift in funding as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2014.

In the 2008 House races, independent groups spent about $26 million (in 2014 dollars).

But after Citizens United, independent expenditures by PACs, super PACs and nonprofits exploded in the 2010 race to $106.3 million. In 2012, it more than doubled to $204.1 million. It dipped in 2014 to $143.4 million.

And it’s Republicans who are benefiting most from the surge of outside money.

In 2008, 56 percent of the outside spending helped Democrats by boosting their candidates or attacking Republicans.

But since then, Republicans have been helped more by ads underwritten by outside groups than Democrats, by 53 percent in 2010, and 56 percent in 2012 and 2014.

Israel recalled he once had to shift $2 million in DCCC funds to help a California Democrat counter an outside group’s $2 million in ads for the Republican while he was on his way to La Guardia Airport to fly to the West Coast.

When he landed in California, Israel said, his aide told him he had to come up with another $2 million — because the outside group had matched his infusion of money in the House race with another infusion of its own.

The proposals that Democrats have advanced to address the outside money in politics have been limited by the law and Supreme Court rulings that say, in effect, money is speech.

Among the solutions are a presidential order requiring federal contractors to disclose money they give to super PACs and outside groups; the Disclose Act requiring super PAC contributions be made public; and federal matching funds for contributions of $150 or less to boost the power of small donors.

Israel said he personally would like to see a constitutional amendment passed to reverse the Citizens United rulings, but acknowledged that’s not likely to happen.

None of these ideas will address the time politicians spend raising money, though, a complaint Israel aired on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on April 3.

Over his 16 years in the House, Israel said he raised $20 million for his re-elections by spending 4,200 hours in “call time” hitting up donors on the telephone and holding 1,600 fundraisers. And that doesn’t count the hours spent or hors d’oeuvres served at events he hosted or attended as DCCC chairman.

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