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McConnell’s Campaign Finance Riders

Even more big money could flood into our elections if last minute riders pass with the FY2016 omnibus spending bill.

Cross-posted on The Hill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reportedly plans to slip a rider into the must-pass FY2016 omnibus spending bill that would repeal longstanding limits on how much political parties may spend in coordination with candidates. He appears to be setting the stage for another midnight deal to loosen party campaign finance rules through the budget process, as happened with last year’s “Cromnibus”, which enabled special accounts through which party donors can give many times more than was previously legal.

We recently published a paper arguing for the strengthening of political parties, and expressed openness to relaxing coordinated spending limits (a departure from our organization’s prior stance), so some might think we would welcome the Majority Leader’s proposal.  We do not.

Our nation’s campaign finance laws need reform. But significant deregulatory changes like repeal of party coordinated spending limits only make sense as part of a broader package. Yet another one-off deal negotiated in secret by Washington insiders would be a step backwards.

Limits on party contributions to candidates are a longstanding feature of federal campaign finance law. They exist to prevent party committees from being used to circumvent limits on contributions to candidates. Since spending coordinated with a candidate is no different than giving that candidate cash, coordination has also long been limited.

In an era of super PACs, which can raise unlimited funds from a small coterie of mega-donors, there is certainly a case to be made for relaxing some of the restrictions on official party committees. Traditional party organizations are built on longstanding grassroots networks. For all their faults, they remain more participatory, transparent and accountable than their shadow party analogues.  That is why we support a variety of measures to make the party committees more competitive, including small donor public financing and targeted efforts to lighten their regulatory burden.

So why aren’t we on board with the McConnell rider? There are at least two reasons: the change, if not accompanied by other fixes, would invite corruption; and, in any event, the budget process should not be used to sneak in major policy changes without public debate.

First, under current conditions, the benefits of lifting limits on party coordinated spending would not outweigh the risks. It is true that unlimited coordination with candidates would help the official parties. However, if the soft money excesses of the 1990s (to say nothing of Watergate and Teapot Dome) show us anything, it is that the parties left unchecked do have the capacity to facilitate corruption thanks to their symbiotic relationship with officeholders.

The potential for such corruption is far greater today than it was just two years ago. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2014 McCutcheon ruling and the Cromnibus changes, each party can now raise about $2.5 million in any one cycle from a single donor (more than 450 times what that donor could give to a candidate during the same period). That money must be spread out among the party’s various national, state, and local committees, but these organizations are free to fundraise together and make unlimited transfers among themselves (some consist of little more than bank accounts overseen by volunteers). Moreover, while in theory the donor’s money could not be earmarked to help a specific candidate, in practice the relevant rules are almost never enforced by the permanently gridlocked Federal Election Commission.

Our preference would be for parties, like candidates, to be subject to reasonable contribution limits—lower than those enacted through Cromnibus—in which case, coordinated spending restrictions would be unnecessary. We might also be open to relaxing coordinated spending limits if there were credible anti-earmarking and other protections to ensure that massive amounts of money cannot be funneled directly to specific candidates. Right now, none of these conditions are met, and so the risk of simply repealing party coordinated spending limits is too great.

But even if this were not the case, we also categorically reject efforts to make major changes to campaign finance law through appropriations riders. Overwhelming majorities of Americans want to see stronger campaign finance protections, not weaker ones. Rolling back longstanding safeguards through the budget process, with virtually no public debate, sends the public a message that their views simply do not matter. That serves only to deepen public cynicism and political dysfunction.

If Congress truly wants to strengthen our democracy by helping to revitalize party organizations, we can think of a number of steps they could take. But another midnight deal is not the answer. The American public deserves better.

(Photo: Thinkstock)