By Francis Barry

Bloomberg View

For all of Bernie Sanders’ populist crusading against the political influence of “millionaires and billionaires,” when faced with a rare chance to pass major campaign-finance reform, he voted against it, putting the party’s biggest donors first. The vote is worth remembering not only for what it says about Sanders, but also as a reminder of the Democratic Party’s history of saying one thing about reform and doing another.

In 2006, House Republicans backed a bill to rein in spending by 527 groups (named for a section of the tax code), the forerunners to Super PACs. In the 2004 election, those groups raised more money for Democrats than their Republican counterparts in unlimited contributions from wealthy donors, especially George Soros, while Republican Party committees attracted more in regulated donations.

To address the imbalance, the bill treated 527s like party committees, with contribution limits and a prohibition against direct corporate and union contributions. It also lifted limits on what parties could spend in coordination with candidates’ campaigns. Major government-reform organizations including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters backed the bill, which was co-sponsored by Massachusetts liberal Marty Meehan. But for Democrats, passing the bill would have meant giving up a campaign advantage. So Sanders joined nearly all Democrats in voting against it.

The bill wasn’t perfect. Some Democrats complained it didn’t cover 501(c)(4) organizations that later became a vehicle for large anonymous contributions. But winning half a loaf was hardly the problem. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer put it plainly: “This is not reform, it’s retaliation.” In fact, it was both, but for Democrats, the latter mattered most. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared 527s “a freedom of speech issue,” though she now supports — as does Sanders — a constitutional amendment to restrict such speech.

It was neither the first nor last time Democrats balked on passing reform.

In 1992, a Democratic Congress passed a bill that included public funding of campaigns and voluntary spending limits, knowing that President George H.W. Bush would almost certainly veto it. (He did.) The following year, with Bill Clinton in the White House and pushing for a bill, the fear set in that reform might diminish their fundraising advantages, and there was less enthusiasm among Democrats for the issue. Both houses passed bills that were weaker than the 1992 bill, and when they couldn’t reconcile their differences, the bills died.

In 2009, when Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority, campaign-finance reform wasn’t on their agenda. Only in 2010, after the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate campaign spending, did Democrats push a modest bill that would have required corporations and independent groups — but not large unions — to disclose their campaign spending. They failed to convince a single Republican Senator to support the bill, and rather than negotiate, they let it die.

Democrats also had a chance to take on another issue close to the heart of reformers: gerrymandering. Then-Congressman John Tanner, Democrat from Tennessee, introduced a bill granting responsibility for drawing congressional district lines to bipartisan commissions in each state. The bill was referred to a subcommittee chaired by New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler. It never got a hearing.

I asked Tanner if Nadler or President Barack Obama ever expressed any interest in passing the bill. “Afraid not,” he told me. “The only people who would sign on as sponsors were the Blue Dogs, because they were already in competitive districts.” Last year, with Democrats stuck in the minority, Nadler signed on as a co-sponsor of a redistricting bill.

In his final State of the Union speech, Obama lamented the “rancor” that dominates Washington and called for passage of campaign finance and redistricting reform as a way to “fix our politics.” Changing the system, however, requires leadership when your party is winning. And unlike Tanner, most Democrats in Washington have a history of finding religion on reform only when they are losing. “Lord, grant me chastity and continence,” prayed St. Augustine, “but not yet!” Democrats have long said the same about campaign finance and redistricting reform.

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and domestic policy.

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