Full Episode: Campaign Donation Limits; Healthcare Politics, Congressional Power shift

Apr. 04, 2014 AT 8 p.m. EDT

The Supreme Court rejected the overall limits on how much individuals can donate; the implementation and politics of the Affordable Care Act; and why two powerful GOP congressmen, Rep. Mike Rogers and Rep. Dave Camp, have chosen not to seek re-election. Joining Gwen: Jeff Zeleny, ABC News; Matea Gold, The Washington Post; Pete Williams, NBC News; John Dickerson, Slate Magazine.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Money, politics and power at the Supreme Court, the White House and in Congress, tonight on “Washington Week.”

(Clip plays.)

MS. IFILL: The Supreme Court opens the flood gates.

(Clips begin.)

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): What I think this means is that freedom of speech is being upheld.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN (D-IL): What we’re faced with is a Supreme Court across the street that celebrates oligarchs.

MS. IFILL: How the Constitution, big donors, eager candidates and even congressional retirements are changing the face of politics.

Plus, the White House victory lap.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.

MS. IFILL: Health care signups crash past 7 million.

MR. : This is a total that shatters original expectations, especially in the wake of the bumpy rollout of the website in the fall.

MS. IFILL: But that doesn’t mean the battle is over.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): “Obamacare” is not a success for those families who want to see the doctors that they want to see, not that Washington wants to see.

(Clips end.)

MS. IFILL: Another week at the fight. (Bell rings.)

Covering it all, Pete Williams of NBC News, Matea Gold of The Washington Post, John Dickerson of Slate Magazine and CBS News, and Jeff Zeleny of ABC News.


MS. IFILL: Good evening. The Supreme Court doubled-down this week on a point its 5-to-4 majority has made before. Repeat after me: Money equals speech. And if that is so, the court said, government cannot impose limits on how people use cash to express political beliefs. This was not only a big legal decision but a huge political one. So it will take two to sort it out tonight, starting with Pete Williams.

So, Pete, did we see this decision coming?

PETE WILLIAMS: We sure did, and here’s why: There are really two limits that are on the books. One is not challenged here, and it says you can give up to $5,200 to any single candidate, primary plus general. This was about how much you can give to all candidates put together. And if you gave a maximum of 5,200, you could only give to nine under these limits. And what the justices said during the oral argument is, how does that make constitutional sense that you can give to nine but not 10? And when they started showing their concern about that, it seemed pretty clear that this thing was doomed.

MS. IFILL: But isn’t the big question about whether – at what point money corrupts the process?

MR. WILLIAMS: That’s right. This decision really is about money. And what the – the reason is because, as you said, it’s protected speech. So the Supreme Court has said you can limit it only if there’s a good purpose, and limiting corruption is that purpose. But this decision said corruption means giving money directly to a candidate in return for getting something specific. It said as long as that individual contribution stands, then you’re not bribing that member of Congress if you give to a hundred other members of Congress. And what the minorities say is, no, that’s too cramped a reading of what corruption is, that really you have to look at not corrupting the person but corrupting the system. And it said when you flood a lot of money in, you create cynicism, people don’t want to participate, it’s corrosive to democracy.

MS. IFILL: Matea, now we have seen the court just chipping away at these laws for years now. Does it have an immediate impact on campaigns and on candidates?

MATEA GOLD: Well, this specific decision in practical terms really only impacts you if you have the desire and means to spend more than $123,000 every two years giving to candidates and parties. But in a broader sense, what it does, it creates other avenues for big money to come into a system that’s already brimming with cash. We’ve seen in the last four years since Citizens United the advent of super PACS and politically active 501(c)(4) organizations that are becoming increasingly the center of our political energy right now. And so what this does is give wealthy people more ways to give money to candidates and campaigns. Now it remains to be seen how many people are going to take advantage of these new mechanisms, but I definitely think for the small donor out there, it creates a sense that their voice is really being washed out.

JOHN DICKERSON: Pete, I want to ask you about were there things embedded in this decision? People talk about John Roberts playing the long game, and they were picking out not just what you’ve described, which is the immediate ruling here, but things he might do in the future. So what can you read in this ruling that tells us about that?

MR. WILLIAMS: This definition of “corruption” is the key thing here, because what in the past the Supreme Court said is, yes, direct contributions, sort of like bribery, is definitely a reason to limit contributions, but so is undue influence or the appearance of undue influence. Well, the court has set that aside. That is gone as a justification. So, for example, the court might revisit the limits on soft money because as long as the individual contribution stands, then if you give money to political parties it’s not to directly support a candidate, then how is that a problem? It could be used to challenge, for example, the limitation right now, the ban on contributions from labor unions or corporations. That could be next. With this very limited test now, a lot of things might pass it.

JEFF ZELENY: So Matea, who wins or loses out of this? Is it too simplified to say that, you know, Republican candidates are going to come out better than this and Democrats worse, or an even playing field? How do you assess it in this early going?

MS. GOLD: So the first winners are clearly the political parties. They actually now can raise money from a lot more people than they could raise before, and that’s why we saw the RNC actually brought this case with Sean McCutcheon, who is an Alabama businessman behind the original case. So they’re jubilant, and I think Republicans are outwardly jubilant and Democrats are inwardly jubilant about it. They don’t want to dance too much on the grave of a campaign finance restriction. But there is a sense among some Democrats I’ve spoken to, they actually feel like they have more donors out there, that it could actually help them in the long run. Republicans really have huge numbers – or rather, you know, relatively huge numbers of incredibly wealthy people that are already giving to these large money vehicles. So Democrats might be able to actually even the playing field a little bit.

MR. : (Inaudible.)

MR. ZELENY: And just to be clear, you said $3.6 million. I thought that was the most fascinating number in your story. How is that possible, that someone could give 3.6 million (dollars)?

MS. GOLD: So this is still theoretical, but if someone created a joint fundraising committee consisting of a presidential candidate and all of the party committees and all of the congressional candidates, you could ask one donor in one fell swoop to write a check for $3.6 million. Now, a lot of people scoffed that that will actually happen. It takes a lot of, you know, legal coordination to make that work. But the reality is that people have become incredibly creative about finding ways to write money into the system.

MR. DICKERSON: Pete, wasn’t a part of the dissent or argument of the minority?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, there was. Yeah, there was this argument between John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, and Stephen Breyer, because Breyer sketched out all these various things. The main concern of the Obama administration in defending this aggregate limit – and we should point out it applied not only to how much you could give total to all candidates but how much also you could give total to all political parties in past. And what the Obama administration said is, you could use all these other routes to give – to channel more money to a candidate by giving to others, who would then pass it on to the candidate, give to the parties, the PACs. And the Supreme Court looked at that and said, well, that’s just sheer speculation. There just aren’t that many people. And by the way, it’s about 600 people who maxed out in the last election round.

MS. IFILL: I have very specific impact questions for each of you. One is, I was in Pennsylvania with “This Week,” where there are already no limits on the amount of money that you can give to a state campaign.


MS. IFILL: Does it affect anything there?

MR. WILLIAMS: There’s 38 states in which that’s the case, but this applies only – this ruling is limited to federal candidates. Now, whether we’re now going to see a series of challenges based on whatever state laws are left that do limit total contributions, that’s another possibility.

MS. IFILL: And my very specific question for you, Matea, is if I am Sheldon Adelson at home watching this tonight and I’m – or I’m George Soros, do I immediately get a bigger, fatter checkbook to start writing bigger, fatter checks, or does it have no effect on what I was doing before?

MS. GOLD: I think this really hits the middle-tier donors. Those are folks that are already playing at kind of a stratospheric level. You know, the people who really max out to the party committees, that are kind of the rank-and-file bundlers we see for presidential campaigns, those are the ones that are going to get hit up the hardest. And I should mention many of those folks are not too happy about this ruling. They were thrilled to get to this point in the cycle because most of them had maxed out and could say very apologetically “I’m sorry” to the next candidate who called, and now their phones are already ringing off the hook. So that’s been a real – I think, an interesting reaction we’ve seen.

MR. DICKERSON: They’ve got caller ID so they don’t need to pick up the phone. But this question of – with campaign finance, it’s two things: the amount of money, and transparency. Is there a – is there a win for transparency here in this law, maybe?

MS. GOLD: There potentially is, and this is why this ruling actually might shift some of the momentum that’s gone to outside groups back to inside the system, where there is more requirement of disclosure. So if folks actually give through these super-size joint fundraising committees, they have to report their donations, which means that we could actually see a little bit more about how big money impacts the system.

MS. IFILL: And what – and let me ask the same question to you, which is how exactly would that work if – or at least what is the court’s intent about how that would work?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, they said that’s the saving grace here. That’s the – that’s what makes all this is going to be OK, because there will be this transparency. And by the way, the majority opinion also had suggestions on how Congress could make this better. For example, it said members of Congress could make it illegal for a candidate to give money to other candidates’ campaigns, so you could stop the transferring. They had a lot of helpful suggestions for Congress. But the idea that any of these are going to be enacted is pretty remote.

MR. ZELENY: One thing I heard from someone who worked in a very high-level on the 2012 campaign, the reason that this is a big deal is they can give directly now. You don’t have to sit around and sort of wondering if there’s going to be a sugar daddy out there to sort of save you. I mean, is that – in the next presidential campaign, is that the place where we’re really going to see the potential effects of this, or is it going to play out in the midterms, do you think, of the super-size –

MS. GOLD: I think – yeah, no, I mean, I think in the presidential we already saw both Obama and Romney create joint fundraising committees that were very creative, that took advantage of some partnerships with states to bring more money in. And there is a real desire for more what’s called hard dollars, dollars that the campaigns directly can use, because the campaigns actually can get a lower unit rate on buying television ads, for example. That money can go further than if it went to a super PAC. So a lot of people say this is a great day for candidates and parties.

MR. WILLIAMS: I should say one other thing here, and that is there’s a lot of pessimism from people who look at this opinion and say, you know, I wonder if the Supreme Court is eventually going to strike down all contribution limits. Now, Clarence Thomas is the only member of the court who right now is for that. He couldn’t get any other takers to that, but there are a lot of folks who look at this decision and say, maybe that’s where John Roberts wants to go eventually.

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’re going to be watching especially where John Roberts goes eventually, because I think that’s the interesting part to keep an eye on in all of this. Thank you.

Spring finally arrived for the White House this week. You could probably hear them exhaling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the numbers rolled in: 7.1 million enrolled in the federal health care exchanges and 3 million more Americans qualified for Medicaid.

(Clip begins.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked. There are still no death panels. (Laughter.) Armageddon has not arrived. Instead, this law is helping millions of Americans. And in the coming years, it will help millions more.

(Clip ends.)

MS. IFILL: Now, it should be said, the Republicans are not buying this just yet, and it’s possible it may be a little too soon still to spike the football, John.

MR. DICKERSON: Right. Well, to run with your metaphor, it might be OK to spike the football for the president now, but there’s a long – there’s a lot more of this game to play.

MS. IFILL: I try to usually avoid sports metaphors – (inaudible).

MR. DICKERSON: Well, wait till you see I – see me run it into the ground.

Seven point one million is a big number. That’s the number they wanted from the get-go, before there were any troubles with this. And so in that regard – and one of the questions at the heart of this, before we had the website failure, was, are people going to buy it? The product will be put out there, and will people sign up? And so the president was ratified in that. But we also have to remember how this game started. I mean, there was a kick-off and the president’s team ran into their own end zone, then they fumbled and they –

MS. IFILL: You’re going to have to stop this. (Laughter.)

MR. DICKERSON: Well, and so there’s a deficit that he faced. So in that regard, this is an even greater achievement because of the basically two months that the website that was central to pushing this program out there. So the fact that he got 7.1 million is a big deal. But there is a lot – there are a lot of unanswered questions still to go.

MR. ZELENY: I mean, what are – what is that 7.1 million number actually mean? Who are they? What are they? The Republicans seem to say that that is not necessarily a hard number.

MR. DICKERSON: Well, that’s why this was a sort of premature celebration despite everything I just said, for a number of reasons. One, enrolling doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve paid, and some reporting suggests that insurance companies, say 15 percent, many 20 percent of the people who’ve enrolled, are not writing that check. Well, the insurance companies care about who writes the check.

Then the question is, who are the people? Are they healthy? And where do they live in the country, because of the way insurance is spread around and the way the costs are figured. So you have to answer those questions. Then you’re going to have other questions, like, with all these new people in the system, are there going to be enough doctors and nurses to handle them?

MS. IFILL: Didn’t they come out with a new number today about how many people were actually insured, who were newly insured?

MR. DICKERSON: That’s the – that’s the other final big question. The goal here is to insure a lot of people who were not previously insured and not wreck the system. And so the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation came out with a study today that said 5.6 million new people are insured, and that’s a big deal for one of the original goals of the program. So that’s a good number for the president, but we’ve got to watch is in May or in spring and summer, when the insurance companies put out their premiums and we start to hear about the premiums, they will have done the math. They will have seen the healthiness and where everybody lives and how much this will affect the underlying premiums.

MR. WILLIAMS: So if you’re having a telethon, everybody calls in at the end, in the last two hours. It would seem, though that with this kind of thing, people who really wanted insurance or want to avoid the penalties would get in early. So is this it? I mean, is it going to be declining now as time goes by?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, you’d think so, but no. I mean, people were running in at the last minute, and there was a lot of polling to suggest that the uninsured, many of them didn’t even know that this deadline was coming. And then when they did know it was coming, they didn’t want to sign up. They were unsure about it. And so what’s to come is there are going to be a lot more numbers coming in for two reasons. One, if you sign up for Medicaid – and a lot of these signups are people who were eligible for Medicaid, but they’re so-called woodwork people that came out of the woodwork because they learned they were eligible for Medicaid. They can still sign up. Even though the federal exchanges are closed, you can still sign up for Medicaid. So there may be (so much ?) uninsured that will come from that.

Also, the administration has names and phone numbers and emails of people who tried to sign up but then didn’t. Well, that gets them in under the wire, because the way this – the way they’ve tweaked the rules here, you can still sign up. So there might be some additional numbers, and that means the number of people who signed up in this first burst will grow.

MS. GOLD: So, this was to be the landmark crowning achievement of the Obama administration. What did the rollout and the way that they’ve handled the missteps tell us about the White House?

MR. DICKERSON: They had three years to figure this out, and then they had a catastrophic management failure, basically. They – you know, the Obama administration, when the president came into office, it’s “no-drama Obama.” And they kept saying when there were these various flare-ups, various scandals, they would say, you know, we’re focused on bigger important things, like implementing the health care. Now, they had a lot of obstacles thrown in their way. Of course, Republicans were trying to, you know, stop them at every turn. So it wasn’t like they had a placid three years of installing this, but there was a big management failure for two months. Then with panic replacing the no drama fueling them, they put the right people in place, they cut to the quick, they got through the bureaucratic fog and they achieved this 7.1 million. So – because what’s at stake here is the question about whether the government can do big things. And we still really don’t know the answer to that because, yes, they have done a big thing here so far, but they did it under these severe panic conditions. That’s no way to run a railroad.

MS. IFILL: But does that mean that they were willing to kick the small things, or the smaller things – like the employer mandate, which they said at the beginning and for a long time was central and is central, and now they’ve been tweaking it around the edges – does that eventually go away?

MR. DICKERSON: Sure. Without the focusing of panic, you wouldn’t have necessarily maybe seen the White House throw away a lot of these deadlines or rules, and they were (cashing ?) them aside as fast as they could to get to this number. The employer mandate, which is basically the mandate from – for companies with more than 50 employees, then they changed it to more than 100 employees, that was delayed a year. And a lot of people, one of them Robert Gibbs, the former spokesman of the president, thinks that’s another thing that’s just going to get cast aside. That – and the reason for having that was to force companies to sign people up, give people insurance. If they don’t, they pay a penalty. If that goes away, it’s one of the mechanisms.

MR. WILLIAMS: That’s a tax, by the way. (Just ask the Supreme Court ?).

MR. DICKERSON: Yeah, just ask Chief Justice Roberts, yes.

MS. IFILL : Well, I was wondering, actually, also in addition to that what’s going to happen next, because when you stop and you think about this, they’ve got – they’ve got the – April 15th is the next hard deadline, right? And we still don’t know how many of these insurance companies are going to be there for the long haul. And Republicans have not given up on pushing back.

MR. DICKERSON: Right. Well, they’re – we haven’t even gotten to the politics. So, yes, we – the big question is what are the premiums going to look like? Because the premiums affect not only the people in the program but it also affects 170 million people who have insurance who aren’t participating in the exchange, and they’re the politically volatile group here, because they’re the ones Republicans have been talking to – and many of them are Republican voters who say I don’t – this is going to affect the health care I have, and that’s what scares them. And so that’s the big question for the election.

MS. GOLD: And is there any way that this is not toxic for the Democrats now since they were able to claim a little victory?

MR. DICKERSON: Well, we’ll see how this 7.1 million works. It’s going to be difficult for Democrats, but the best they can probably hope for is that they’re allowed to change the subject to talk about something else.

MS. IFILL: Which is what they’ve been doing for a long time now.

So the White House enjoyed a good week. We’ll give them this. But everyone else is still bracing for the 2014 midterms as lawmaker after lawmaker. and most recently major committee chairmen, opt to escape Capitol Hill entirely. In the House, two of the most significant retirements come from Michigan, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers. But there are more on both sides of the aisle. And are they leaving because they can or because they have to, Jeff?

MR. ZELENY: It’s really yes to both, not because their re-elections are in question, because the House is drawn so safely now, almost no incumbent is threatened, but there’s a rule that was imposed back in ’95 right after Speaker Gingrich and the Republican revolution came in, that said that a chairman can only serve for six years. So what we are seeing now, these chairmen of the committees suddenly find themselves not wanting to go back and lose their chairmanship, which comes with staff and bigger offices and much more power, so they are deciding that they would rather not run for re-election, not be in the House at all, as opposed to lose their chairmanship.

MS. IFILL: Be a radio host, be a radio host.

MR. ZELENY: And Mike Rogers, he was a former FBI agent, and then he was on the Intel Committee, you know, very prominent on Sunday talk shows and things. He is going to have his own radio program, he said, talking about national security issues. He has bigger ambitions ahead, so he’s sort of staying visible. But we’re also seeing it in the Senate. So many big names are retiring this year who’ve been there for decades and decades. And it is, without a doubt, changing the complexion of Capitol Hill.

MR. WILLIAMS: So what was the reason for limiting chairmanships, and are the Republicans pretty happy with this?

MR. ZELENY: At the time, it was an example of saying, look, we’re going to sweep out the old, change how Washington works. We are going to not stay around for a long time. And it’s only come up a couple of times where they’ve tried to revisit the idea of getting rid of this, but the rank-and-file is never going to vote for that because it gives them a chance to be chairman. But it also has done one thing: It has centralized power, in the House particularly, among the leaders. Speaker Boehner, for example, has much more power under this. But speaking of retirements, that is the one person we’re still sort of thinking about, wondering what he’s going to do. A lot of his friends are among these retiring. He has said he is not going to, but some people aren’t quite sure if that’s a final decision.

MS. GOLD: He did buy that condo in Florida.

MR. ZELENY: He did buy a condo in Florida. He likes to golf. I mean, you can use a condo in Florida as well. But that’s one thing that we’ll be watching for the rest of the year.

MR. WILLIAMS: And just to be clear, there’s no six-year limit for a speaker.

MR. ZELENY: There is not. There is not.

MR. DICKERSON: So is the – the House and Senate is already – it’s gotten pretty mean. There are lots of younger members. They don’t sort of go by these old rules. Does this mean it’s going to get even meaner than with the kind of – the guys have been around a while, now gone –

MR. ZELENY: It could certainly because any comity that was left is really sort of going by the wayside. So many new senators, more than half of the Senate has been elected in the last four years, really, four to five years. It is just an incredible changeover.

MS. IFILL: Now, that’s supposed to be a good thing. When they start talking about term limits – and that’s where this limit on chairman came from – the whole idea was fresh blood, people who get stuck, they get calcified, they lose contact with their constituents, and so maybe there’s something good about this turnover.

MR. ZELENY: No, I think there’s definitely a lot to be made of the argument that new fresh voices comes in. But there is an institutional memory that has slipped away. There is an institutional sort of feeling there. And if you talk to members sort of on both sides, they miss those days. Of course, everyone misses the old days, but not all of these new members coming in actually want to pass laws or govern; they want to stop things from happening. So – and it’s a very interesting – (inaudible).

MS. GOLD: So, does this mean that Congress is no longer looked at as a place where people want to go to achieve things for the long run? I mean, is this just a place that’s just a stopping point along the way to another career?

MR. WILLIAMS: A radio talk show career?

MS. : Right.

MR. ZELENY: I mean, unbelievable, right? The Senate is a club of 100, such an exclusive, unique club. Mike Rogers, Dave Camp, both from Michigan, they could have run for the Senate for Michigan. There’s an open seat, a competitive seat because Senator Levin, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he’s retiring. But the Senate still is not viewed as one of the top places to be. It’s – you know, not much happens up there. You see several people retiring after just one term in the Senate. Mike Johannes, the senator from Nebraska, I asked him the other day – he said, it was so much more fun being a governor and it’s just not as – you know, not as much is happening. So –

MS. IFILL: Things end at your desk. But I also wonder whether it’s true that – we’ve been focused on the Republicans when we talk about Camp and we talk about Rogers, but Democrats are fleeing as well.

MR. ZELENY: Right, and John Dingell, prime example. I mean, he’s been in the House for 60 years.

MS. IFILL: John Dingell – wow.

MR. ZELENY : You know –

MS. IFILL: But a question is to me whether that means in 2014 that anyone is worried about the majority.

MR. ZELENY: I mean, the Democrats who are of a certain age, who have been there for quite a while, they are retiring knowing that they will not be around long enough for Democrats to reclaim the House majority. There is no talk in all this midterm election fuss of the House having really any credible chance of going back into Democratic hands. That’s why so many are leaving, you know, like Chairman Waxman and others.

MS. IFILL: Briefly, you had one other –

MR. DICKERSON: Well, any other – well, is there any open seats coming open from any of these retirements, or does it change the midterm picture at all?

MR. ZELENY: It’s really not changing the midterm picture. The midterm picture is locked in. But there are some key open races. Michigan’s one. Tom Harkin from Iowa has been around for so long. His open seat is one of those interesting ones as well.

MS. IFILL: I have a soft spot for Iowa, as always. (Laughter.) If Jeff is ever on the show and doesn’t mention Iowa, I’ll (eat my hat ?). (Laughter.)

Thank you everybody. We have to stop for now, but the conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week” webcast extra, where among other things, we’ll talk about the Senate CIA torture report. That streams live at 8:30 Eastern time, or you can catch it all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Also on online, my trip outside the Beltway that proved why so many pundits are wrong about you. Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the “PBS NewsHour,” and we’ll see you here right next week right here on “Washington Week.” Good night.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064