The president has signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill to keep the government’s lights on. The bill is well over 2,000 pages long, so the casual reader will be forgiven for not being familiar with the policy details.
Besides, what’s not in the bill is an important part of the story. Although provisions that make it harder for the government to responsibly regulate money in politics are sprinkled throughout the bill, advocates were able to keep out language that would have been much worse.
First, what’s in the bill.
The spending bill prohibits the IRS from crafting new rules for “social welfare” nonprofits. These “dark money” groups accept unlimited donations to influence elections without ever revealing who their donors are.
Nonprofits acting as de facto political committees violate the spirit of the tax code and campaign finance law. The IRS shouldn’t allow it, but enforcement has been spotty at best. Clear rules would improve enforcement and make compliance easier for nonprofits. The provision in the omnibus bill protects the dark money status quo by forbidding the IRS from improving the rules.
The bill also prohibits the Securities and Exchange Commission from finalizing a rule that would require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending. For years, advocates have argued that shareholders deserve to know if their investments are being used to influence elections and elected officials – spending that can pose significant risk to a firm’s bottom line.
Finally, the bill keeps the government from imposing a requirement that federal contractors reveal their political spending—a requirement that would protect the government procurement process from backroom pay-to-play deals.
Those provisions blocking agencies from doing their jobs are bad policy, but they’re the same restrictions we’ve seen in past spending bills.
On the bright side, budget negotiators were considering much worse provisions that stayed out of the bill.
Republicans attempted to include a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which keeps churches and charities from spending on elections. A repeal would have allowed any political operator to establish a “church” and use it for dark money spending. Even worse, the taxpayers would have to subsidize this secretive spending, because donations to these groups are tax deductible.
Lawmakers also considered using the spending bill to weaken the limits on parties’ ability to spend in coordination with their candidates, long sought by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a perennial foe of campaign finance limits. That change would have allowed big donors to circumvent the strict limits on contributions to candidates, since each party can accept about $2.5 million in a two-year election cycle from a single donor (that’s more than 450 times what an individual could give to a candidate).
In short, the bill does block some reform efforts. But it could’ve been a whole lot worse.