Washington mythology would like us to believe that when it comes to political reform in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is and always will be unbeatable. According to the legend, when he declares something is dead, that is the end of it. Some senators have admitted they will not even consider legislation to secure our elections because of his opposition. But this ongoing narrative is nothing more than a fantasy.
McConnell is not invincible. A review of ethics and campaign reforms of the past two decades makes clear that he can be beat on political reform. To be sure, McConnell has mastered using every tactic available to delay hearings, deny votes, or drain support from proposals, but he has also lost several high profile fights on these issues. When both Republicans and Democrats agree that it is good politics and good policy to fix the broken political system, they overcome leadership and roadblocks in their way.
For instance, after nearly half a decade of wrangling, bipartisan pressure overwhelmed objections from McConnell to the first sweeping reform of lobbying laws in 50 years. In 1995, Congress was set to vote on the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The curtains were pulled back on many influence peddling scandals and no bid military contracts. Republicans had campaigned on cleaning up Congress, and a majority of voters believed lobbyists controlled power in Washington. A bipartisan group of more than a dozen senators joined together to update gift rules in the legislative branch. At the time, Senator Russell Feingold said in his first two years in Congress, he had received and returned 800 gifts to his office. The bipartisan group soon overcame objections from McConnell.
Then in 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act that was championed by Senators John McCain and Feingold. Before the vote, McConnell famously declared, “I have often said, with a smile on my face, that this issue for average Americans ranks right up there with static cling as an issue of concern to them.” The measure banned soft money, clamped down on sham issue ads by defining electioneering communications, and was the last major political reform legislation that was passed by Congress. The legislation was passed by a Republican House and Senate, and was signed into law by a Republican president.
In an update to lobbying reforms in 2007, McConnell once again tried to stand in the way of cleaning up Washington but came up short. Originally, he had cosponsored the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act with Majority Leader Harry Reid. This was the “first time in 32 years that the leadership of both parties agreed to cooperate” on the first bill of a Senate session, the media noted. But when a weaker companion measure had passed the House, McConnell “sabotaged his own bill by refusing to appoint senators to the conference committee” and held the bill “hostage because he wanted to loosen some campaign finance restrictions.” The watered down version passed and was signed into law by President Bush.
Finally, Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines joined together last year to modernize campaign reporting rules in the chamber. While House and presidential candidates have been required to electronically file their campaign finance reports since 2001, their Senate counterparts kept filing on paper. McConnell fought all attempts to update the system, even when it cost taxpayers nearly $900,000 a year and foreign workers were hired by contractors for manual data entry. Eventually, with over 50 senators and a host of outside groups across the political spectrum supporting, Daines reportedly told McConnell that he campaigned on cleaning up waste in Washington and needed the proposal to turn into a reality.
As for the “static cling” remarks and willingness by McConnell to block bipartisan political reform, the 2018 elections showed overwhelmingly that the American people want political reform and believe that change is a priority. There were a historic number of reform initiatives passed at the state and local levels. At the time, a poll found that 81 percent of the public agreed that the leaders of the country need to fix the broken political system and reduce the influence of big money in elections.
The real lesson from the past two decades is not that McConnell can be beaten on political reform, although that is true. Rather, the takeaway is that when reforms are championed by Republicans and Democrats, they can triumph over his power and the cynical brand of Washington politics. Not every Republican in the Senate and House agrees with his stances on ethics, dark money, election security, and accountability. But McConnell will only stand in the way of reform until it is politically untenable to do so.
Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One, the leading political reform organization in Washington. Follow it on Twitter @IssueOneReform.