Congress puts campaign finance reformers on the naughty list

Campaign finance reformers must have been very naughty this year. As the legislative season ends with a massive $1.1 trillion spending bill, the reformers have assumed their familiar finger-waving posture about a campaign finance rider tucked into page 1599 of the 1603-page bill.

The rider allows individuals to contribute beyond the current two-year maximum to three additional accounts to help parties defray the costs of conventions, buildings, and recounts. In total, the rider would allow individuals to donate over $1.5 million biennially if they max out to all accounts with all the party’s national committees.


This total is a rounding error compared to the unlimited amount an individual can give to a Super PAC. For instance, NextGen Climate Action, run by radical environmentalist Tom Steyer, raised over $77 million this cycle, mostly from his own pocket.


The rider will no doubt aid the political parties who have lost ground to Super PACs and politically active nonprofits in all three of their core functions: fundraising, messaging, and field operations. In some cases, the usurpation has spelled disaster for the candidate, as when Battleground Texas essentially took over field operations for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. The group—brainchild of Obama campaign veterans—refused to share data, clashed with local party organizations, and assured Ms. Davis’s sinking campaign would become a national embarrassment.


FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman, recognizing the vital role of political parties, welcomed the measure. “This legislation will help the parties serve their essential role in democracy and every dollar contributed to the parties is disclosed to the public.” Even political liberals see the value of redirecting money back into the party system. Noted election law professor Rick Hasen, while bemoaning the McCutcheon decision, praised the effect the case would have on government functioning. And former ACLU counsel Joel Gora coauthored an entire book titled Better Parties, Better Government.


But despite the rider’s obvious benefits to the parties, the reformers were not amused. Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer evoked late-Medieval German mysticism, comparing the rider to the central European legend of Faust. According to the myth, the restless scholar—eager for learning and prurient exploits—traded eternal damnation for years of earthly knowledge and the seduction of the innocent maiden ‘Gretchen.’


The reformers expressed their dismay with a strongly worded, but ultimately futile, one-sentence letter to the Senators warning of the corruption the rider will surely presage. But they may have saved their ire for just one. Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid has spent this entire year demonizing wealthy private citizens for participating in politics. His haggard bromides were so familiar they could have come straight from a Campaign Legal Center press release. Evil plutocrats are “buying democracy,” and “drowning out the voices of the American people.” They are un-American industrialists trading commercially gained wealth for access and influence in the political sphere.


Mr. Reid even fully supported a speech-stifling constitutional amendmentthat would have put Congress in charge of what is “reasonable” when it comes to how much people can criticize a sitting United States Senator. If anyone is standing up for the little guy it’s Harry Reid.


Or not. According to NPR’s Peter Overby, Mr. Reid could have vetoed the rider and kept it out of the bill. Indeed another campaign finance provision promoted by future Majority leader Mitch McConnell to loosen coordination barriers between candidates and parties got the chopping block. But Reid, showing his true colors, allowed the rider, all while he lambasts political money on the Senate floor and cozies to reformers.


The reformers may not have been so much naughty this year as demoralized. The courts look askance at their arguments, their supposed Congressional allies drop them like a poorly researched Rolling Stone article, and even their friends in academia can’t support them. At least they still have Stephen Colbert.


By Paul Jossey