Congress Is About to Sneak Through a Deal That Would Obliterate Campaign Finance Rules


A provision buried in the last few pages of the 1,603-page spending package put together by congressional leaders on Tuesday would destroy essential campaign finance regulations that have muzzled rich voters' influence over politics for more than a decade.

Congress is scrambling to pass a bill funding government operations next year before closing for business in 2014. The bill must be passed by Thursday, but may be delayed by a few days through a stopgap bill intended to buy them some more time. The measure allocates over a trillion dollars' worth of funding and contains all kinds of provisions that both parties have been negotiating and compromising over for months. 

One provision has caught many by surprise. It raises the limit on how much a person can donate to a national political party in a year from $32,400 to $324,000. If passed, the change would permit a person to give $648,000 in a two-year cycle, and a couple would be able to give twice that amount in the same period, according to the Hill.

"These provisions have never been considered by the House or Senate, and were never even publicly mentioned before today," Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement.

Adam Smith, a director at Public Campaign, put these mind-boggling numbers into perspective:

"The change would effectively obliterate campaign contribution limits to the parties, while eviscerating the limits placed by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law on how much a political candidate can seek from a donor," wrote Paul Blumenthal and Sam Stein in the Huffington Post.

McCain-Feingold is the common name for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which placed a cap on big contributions of "soft money" by wealthy individuals and corporations to national party committees. While the rule by no means solved the problem of the influence of the wealthy in politics — funding has largely shifted to outside groups and become increasingly difficult to track — it served as a kind of safeguard for direct influence. If this provision is included in the new bill, it provides yet another opening for extremely wealthy people to intervene in elections.

"It is only millionaires and billionaires who will be solicited for these huge corrupting contributions by a president, or a Senate majority or minority leader, or a House speaker or minority leader, or other federal officeholders," said Wertheimer, who was also a key author of the McCain-Feingold law.

This provision would be yet another blow to advocates for campaign finance regulations designed to insulate the political process from plutocratic tendencies, most of which have come from the Supreme Court. The most notable of these was the 2010 Citizens United decision, which discarded limits on how much corporations, unions and individuals could contribute to independent efforts to sway an election.

There's also another provision in the current bill that's deeply troubling to another progressives related to financial regulatory reform. Republicans have included language that would reverse Frank-Dodd requirements "that banks 'push out' some of derivatives trading into separate entities not backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporations," according to the Washington Post. Senator Elizabeth Warren, currently the most influential Democrat in the country when it comes to leashing Wall Street, has encouraged Democrats in the House to reject the bill on the basis of this bank-friendly language.