Democracy Prospect: Omnibus Battles Spotlight Political Money Fault Lines

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

House Speaker Paul Ryan calls on a reporter during an end-of-the-year news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, December 17, 2015, as the Congress moves toward passage of a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.

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The $1.1 trillion spending bill unveiled on Capitol Hill became ground zero this week for all the competing impulses now tearing apart the campaign-finance system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell maneuvered, without success, to let the increasingly marginalized national political parties spend money more freely.

Tea Party conservatives hated that idea, but said it might work if only outside groups, too, could get out from under spending restrictions. That idea, too, fell flat.

Campaign-finance reform advocates lobbied without success to block Republicans from tying the hands of the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission when it comes to forcing disclosure on tax-exempt groups and corporations.

Nobody won, and nobody lost, but the debate threw into sharp relief the deep divisions between the warring players at odds over a campaign-finance system dramatically in flux.

In the strengthen-the-parties camp, McConnell has some influential new allies in the academic community, most notably Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Those two were scheduled to make their case for more party money Thursday at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City at a talk about their book, When Purists Prevail: Campaign Finance and Political Polarization.

In the full deregulation camp, Citizens United President David Bossie came right out and said what most conservatives are thinking, namely that it’s time to throw out the rule book altogether.

“In an ideal world, the First Amendment would be truly embraced, and there would be no limits on contributions to candidates, political parties, or PACs,” wrote Bossie, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling, in The National Review. “And there would be no spending limits imposed on these entities either.”

Reform advocates, while relieved that the final omnibus spending bill did not include McConnell’s political party proposal, lost a key disclosure tool with the IRS and SEC riders, which will further fuel the undisclosed spending known as “dark money. “

Watchdogs have renewed calls for President Barack Obama to require corporate political disclosure for federal contractors via executive order—something Republicans had tried without success to block with yet another spending rider. But as the group Rootstrikers recently noted, Obama does not exactly have a stellar record of following through on his promises to clean up the campaign-finance system.


THE BOTTOM LINE: 2016 is shaping up to be an election defined by unprecedented outside money expenditures, and much of that spending will come from groups that don’t disclose their donors. In case anyone needed proof that super PACs and secretive nonprofits are the dominant players in this election, the Wesleyan Media Project’s recent report on presidential primary ads makes it official. Outside spending groups have aired more than 80 percent of the ads in the GOP primary, the report found.

Much of the media coverage of the Wesleyan report spotlighted the futility of big spending by such super PACs as the $100 million Right to Rise PAC backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. But the report’s most remarkable finding may have been the disclosure that the Conservative Solutions Project, a self-described social welfare group whose main mission is really to back GOP Florida Senator Marco Rubio, is second only to the Bush super PAC in sponsoring GOP primary ads. The group has spent almost $8 million on close to 5,000 ads to back Rubio, the report found—all with undisclosed, unregulated money.

The Federal Election Commission’s December 11 release of a long-awaited report involving the GOP social welfare group Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies drove home the point that political spending is, increasingly, going underground. The report substantiates claims brought by Public Citizen, which first complained to the FEC about Crossroads GPS, that the GOP group’s mission is politics and not social welfare, said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist.


IN OTHER POLITICAL MONEY NEWS, the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas at the Venetian, owned by casino mogul and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, drew a string of stories about Adelson’s meetings with Republican presidential hopefuls. These included reports on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s private huddle with Adelson, and about Adelson’s admission that he may steer more of his money into undisclosed avenues in 2016. The most striking coverage came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which reported that Adelson’s son-in-law, Patrick Dumont, had orchestrated the $140 million purchase of the Review-Journal on the casino mogul’s behalf.

Other smart political money stories this week included Shane Goldmacher’s report in Politico about the black market for campaign donor emails, which landed him a radio interview on Marketplace, and Dave Levinthal’s investigation for the Center for Public Integrity disclosing the $23.4 million that foundations led by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch have poured into American colleges and universities since 2014.

The Prospect’s Justin Miller also wrote about spending riders, voter outrage and conservative reform legislation for our new blog, Checks: Political Money & Democracy. This newsletter is also new. If you’d like to receive The Democracy Prospect in your email inbox every Thursday, go to our home page and click “Sign Up.”

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