Spending bill's campaign finance provision puts more money in politics

Wealthy could dramatically increase donations to party organizations under federal spending bill provision

A proposal hammered out in private by congressional negotiators and buried at the end of a massive federal spending bill would dismantle some of the few remaining restrictions on campaign spending, allowing wealthy donors to dramatically increase their contributions to party organizations.

The provision, on page 1,599 of the 1,603-page bill, could mean that donors may give a total of $777,600 each year to various committees organized by the Democratic and Republican parties, including their national committees, according to lawyers who've studied the proposal. Now, donors can give $32,400 annually to each committee.

The proposal would make it easier for party organizers to collect big checks in the new era of unrestricted spending set in motion by court rulings such as the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

The parties have had to compete for dollars with outside political groups, which are able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash, sometimes without disclosing its sources.

The bill came as one of dozens of additions to the $1.1-trillion spending package, which Congress must pass by Thursday to avert a government shutdown.

The change was requested by leaders in both parties, including the Democratic National Committee, one Republican aide familiar with the negotiations said.

But the plan has drawn fire from reform advocates and some prominent Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who said it would "drown out the voices of the American people and massively expand the role of big money in our elections."

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) defended the plan and the process, saying Wednesday that parties need an easier way to raise money for political conventions to replace the public funding eliminated by Congress this summer.

Boehner also said it wasn't wrong for Congress to add such important proposals — another one would weaken a key regulation on banks — to a giant end-of-year spending package, a method that sharply limits the opportunities for debate.

"Understand, all these provisions in this bill have been worked out in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion, or they wouldn't be in the bill," Boehner said at a news conference.

Added Boehner's spokesman, Michael Steel: "If Rep. Pelosi doesn't think her negotiators did a good job, she should discuss it with them — but sour grapes doesn't mean she gets to rewrite the deal after the fact."

The provision would triple the amount that donors could give each year to the party committee, and to other party committees that pay for conventions, new buildings and recounts.

Campaign finance reform advocates were caught off guard by the measure and mounted a furious counterattack, denouncing it as a backroom deal that will increase the flood of big checks that fund campaigns.

"The numbers here are just outrageous," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, saying that the law, because of its complexity, will also be a boon to lobbyists and political fundraisers.

"Who do they turn to to help interpret what's going on? They'll turn to the K Street folks," she said, using Washington shorthand for lobbying firms.

She said the bill would probably draw support from politicians in both parties, who are "scared to death" by the rise of nonprofit political groups not under their control.

Fred Wertheimer, an advocate for more controls on money in campaigns, called on President Obama to veto the spending bill if it contains the campaign funding item. Wertheimer called it one of "the most destructive and corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted by Congress."

He denounced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for signing off on the package.

"It is very hard to fathom just whom Sen. Reid thought he was representing," Wertheimer said in a statement.

Ending campaign finance restrictions has been a cherished cause for the incoming Senate majority leader, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He pushed a measure last week that would have allowed party groups to directly coordinate with candidates and their campaigns, but the plan died, and a spokesman said McConnell had nothing to do with the current plan.

Jan Baran, a Washington election lawyer who represents Republicans, called the bill "a good start toward restoring some party funding."

But he said it still carried too many restrictions, because most of the extra money can be used only for limited purposes.

He said it was unlikely to diminish the appeal of donating to outside groups, which aren't tied down by such rules.

"It's not a terribly appealing proposition for a donor — 'Won't you give us money to help fund our recount?'" Baran said.


Twitter: @Jtanfani

Times staff writers Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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