Congress' Spending Deal Has A Discreet Loophole That'll Elevate The Private Money In Politics

In reaching a $1.01 trillion spending deal to fund the majority of the federal government through next September, congressional lawmakers slipped in a substantial revision to current campaign finance laws just hours before announcing the bipartisan agreement Tuesday. Provided the provision passes with the rest of the spending bill in the next few days, individual donors could give nearly 10 times as much as the current donation caps — a measure that rolls back much of the reform built into the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act and promises to pour millions of dollars more into the electoral process.

As the law currently stands, individual donors can only give $32,400 to a party committee per year. But the proposed reform allows donors to also contribute to three separate accounts set up to handle the costs of presidential conventions, building expenses and election recounts. If a donor is giving to any of those three accounts — which are still under control of either the Republican or Democratic National Committee — their contribution to each account could be up to three times the cap placed upon a general donation.

Effectively, Congress just took the general donation cap and told wealthy Americans that now they could give that nine times over.

The Washington Post’s Matea Gold explains how the mathematics works out, from an individual donor’s perspective:

That means that a donor who gave the maximum $32,400 this year to the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee would be able to donate another $291,600 on top of that to the party’s additional arms — a total of $324,000, ten times the current limit. In a two-year election cycle, a couple could give $1,296,000 to a party's various accounts.

As if we needed more money in politics. Already, the 2014 midterm election set records for being the most expensive midterm election contest in history, drawing more than $3.67 billion in campaign spending by candidates, parties and outside groups. And that total doesn’t even include the additional $100 million of so-called “dark money” that came from sources who do not have to disclose their donors and is often funneled through secretive organizations bearing innocuous sounding names that are set up just days before the election.

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For some, the proposed campaign finance reform is a welcome change because it would help to shift the balance away from dark-money groups and back to the party committees. The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee both have to be more transparent about where their money comes from and how they spend it.

The limit is certainly high, campaign finance attorney Kenneth Gross told The Washington Post, but if it has the effect of strengthening the party committees at the expense of the outside groups, I think it is a constructive change.

Gross is a former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.

But ultimately, the drastic lifting of individual contribution limits to party committee just invites even greater influence from those with the financial resources to play. Think of American politics as the high-stakes poker table, and the buy-in keeps getting higher.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a statement Wednesday calling for the removal of the campaign finance measure from the omnibus spending bill.

The package includes a provision that 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. With this provision, Republicans would multiply ten times the amount of money wealthy individuals can give to a political party.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also urged stripping the provision before a final vote. It is not clear whether their calls will be heeded.

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Every Voice, an advocacy group focused on getting money out of politics, released a statement roundly criticizing the proposed change, which took many advocates in the campaign finance community by surprise.

Very few people can write checks almost twice the size of the country’s median income, but that’s what this provision will allow, Every Voice spokesman Adam Smith wrote. It gives the biggest donors another opportunity to influence politics and buys them more access to politicians.

Not to mention the reform would undo the bulk of the progress of the McCain-Feingold Act in combatting the corrupting influence of so-called “soft money” — donations to party committees that managed to avoid the federal regulations and spending limits. The Supreme Court appears set on unraveling much of the voter protections embodied in our campaign finance regulations already; we don’t need to add another branch of government to the “money is speech” team as well.

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