When Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007, there was great joy in the reform community. Among other items in the bill, there was a provision to expose the venal and insidious bundlers of campaign contributions that made a mockery of contribution limits. Well, things didn’t turn out quite the way they expected. What we got was a lesson in the limits of reform.

Last week we got a first look at the bundlers—exactly six of them. That’s right: six bundlers total from all 250 reporting committees. While much fanfare accompanied the passage of the bill, FEC rules, in a hopeless attempt to give substance to the law, produced a massive loophole. Recipient committees were required only to report money they got from groups they designated as bundlers. My guess is that the two committees that reported didn’t get the memo—“If you don’t designate a contributor as a bundler, none of your contributors are bundlers.” Lovely logic.

Many have been quick to lay this debacle at the feet of the FEC, which labored mightily to give meaning to the law. Maybe that's fair. But this speaks more, I believe, to futile, ill-advised congressional sorties into arenas of dubious merit. Having reviewed the submissions to the FEC and the reports of their deliberations, it is hard to imagine a decision different than the one they took.

Ironically, instead of reform, we probably know less about the activity of bundlers today than we did before. We have effectively driven them underground, where actual bundlers have “wink and nod” arrangements with campaign committees.

It all brings to mind an ancient quote—and a lesson for reformers and the Congress: “A mountain was in labor, sending forth dreadful groans, and there was in the region the highest expectation. After all, it brought forth a mouse.”


Steven Billet is the Director of the Masters in Legislative Affairs and the Chief of Staff at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University. He can be reached at sbillet@gwu.edu.