A man takes part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on campaign finance, Oct. 8, 2013.
Photo by Susan Walsh/AP

A hidden measure that could devastate campaign finance laws

Updated

Tucked onto page 1,599 of a 1,603 page bill to fund the government comes some pretty dry language riddled with semi-colons and sentences about segregated bank accounts.

But according to campaign finance watchdogs, the measure, attached to the larger bill that is expected to pass Congress before Thursday night in order to avert a government shutdown, represents a devastating secret assault on what’s left of the country’s campaign finance laws.

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The language dramatically increases the amount of money individual wealthy donors can give to national party committees, especially for funds set aside for things like national party conventions and the improvement of headquarters building. Under the change, individual donors would see a tenfold increase on the amount of money they can give to national party organs, rising from the current $32,400-a-year cap to a $324,000 annual limit. When you add in money to congressional campaign committees, that means a single donor could give as much as $777,600 to official arms of the Democratic or Republican party in a single year — a dramatic increase from the current $97,200 limit.

Campaign finance watchdogs and good government groups are furious. They see the measure as adding to the drastic erosion in recent years of laws designed to restrict the flow of money into politics.

“These legislative provisions, if they become law, will be the most corrupting campaign finance legislation ever enacted. Every member who votes to enact these provisions, and President Obama if he signs them into law, will go down in history as enabling the corruption of our democracy and the national scandals that will follow their enactment,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate.

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And perhaps even worse than the change itself, watchdogs say, is the method. The measure was tucked into a must-pass government funding bill hours before it was revealed to the public and just a day before it needs to be passed — without any hearings or a normal review process.

“This backroom deal represents everything Americans detest about Washington and about Congress. Rather than pass legislation to fix the corrupt existing campaign finance system, this Congress that couldn’t pass a bill to simply increase transparency for campaign contributions decided to raise the price for its attentions,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “Both parties are complicit in this dirty deal that was made based on incumbents’ fears of money from outside groups.”

“These legislative provisions, if they become law, will be the most corrupting campaign finance legislation ever enacted.”
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer
It’s unclear who exactly inserted the language into the final funding bill, which emerged out of secret negotiations between Democratic leaders in the Senate and Republican leaders in the House, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office has said he wouldn’t oppose it.

The measure would also greatly increase the amount of money available to congressional campaign committees, which work to elect House and Senate members of each party.

“It’s appalling that Congress is willing to alter campaign finance laws and add more money to the system through this back door channel, while at the same time refusing to consider legislation — like the Senate e-filing bill — that would make information about who is buying our elections available in real time,” said Sunlight Foundation lobbyist Lisa Rosenberg.

After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the rise of super PACs and other outside groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money, have made official political parties relatively less powerful, since they’re legally prohibited from spending the kinds of money super PACS do. Some good government advocates favor strengthening political parties, which have to operate under stricter disclosure regimes, as a way of offsetting the power of super PACs.

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But even some Democratic leaders don’t seem to see benefit in this change, even though it would strengthen their own party. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of the language Wednesday afternoon, along with another measure that would weaken the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

The campaign finance change “would work to drown out the voices of the American people and massively expand the role of big money in our elections,” Pelosi said in a statement. “These provisions are destructive to middle class families and to the practice of our democracy.  We must get them out of the omnibus package.”

“It’s appalling that Congress is willing to alter campaign finance laws and add more money to the system through this back door channel …”
Sunlight Foundation lobbyist Lisa Rosenberg

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a key Pelosi lieutenant and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, announced he’s planning to vote against the government funding bill, in part because of the campaign finance change. “Government should be working on behalf of taxpayers and strengthening the middle class, not catering to wealthy, powerful special interests. I will vote against this bill. We can keep the government open without these big money giveaways that hurt working families,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren also announced her opposition to the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday, citing opposition to the measure on Wall Street reform.

The proposed new change is in part a response to a new law that eliminated public funding for national party conventions. Democrats in particular struggled in 2012 to raise the necessary funds for their nominating convention in North Carolina, and they were forced to take corporate money via an outside allied group in order make ends meet. Operatives and advocates have worried how parties would fund their conventions in 2016 without a change to the existing law.

But campaign finance advocates see the change as reverting to the bad old ways, before the sweeping McCain-Feingold law eliminated so-called soft money contributions that went to party functions, like buildings and conventions.

“The deal that was struck as a part of the omnibus appropriations bill filed yesterday is a clear-cut step in the wrong direction for our democracy. Using the funding bill to increase party limits is a move back toward the days of corrupting soft-money contributions,” said Lisa Gilbert of the lefty Public Citizen group. “This embarrassing deal sacrifices the interests of everyday Americans who want clean elections while elevating the concerns of politicians who want to raise more money.”

Campaign Finance, House Of Representatives and Senate

A hidden measure that could devastate campaign finance laws

Updated