Mitch McConnell Loses Campaign Finance Budget Fight

But efforts to increase disclosure of dark money also took a hit.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not succeed in attaching a provision to the omnibus budget bill that would lift limits on party-candidate coordination.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not succeed in attaching a provision to the omnibus budget bill that would lift limits on party-candidate coordination.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- A controversial proposal to allow unlimited financial coordination between candidates and political parties that was pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) did not make it into the end-of-year omnibus budget bill.

The proposal to lift limits on party-candidate coordination was opposed by both congressional Democrats and conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus. The opposition was led by Democratic Reps. John Sarbanes (Md.) and Ted Deutch (Fla.) and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.).

“We are thankful to leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, reform advocates John Sarbanes and Dick Durbin, as well as White House staff for their efforts on these campaign finance riders," William Roberts, federal legislative director for the pro-campaign finance reform group Every Voice Center, said in a statement.

But other provisions blocking campaign finance enforcement did make it into the bill.

The Securities and Exchange Commission was banned from using any funds to establish a new rule requiring publicly traded companies to disclose contributions they have made to politically active groups, including nonprofits that do not currently disclose such contributions.

Campaign finance reform organizations and Wall Street reform groups have pushed hard to get this rule enacted at the SEC. Their efforts had been blocked by chairwoman Mary Jo White, an Obama appointee, but are now further stymied by the restrictions Congress has placed in the omnibus.

The omnibus bill also bans the Internal Revenue Service from issuing rules requiring disclosure from 501(c)(4) nonprofits engaged in politics. Groups such as these, including Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and the billionaire Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on election efforts without disclosing their donors since the Citizens United decision.

Another rider attached to the budget bans President Barack Obama from issuing an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending, including donations to nonprofit groups engaged in elections, as a condition of submitting a bid. As The Huffington Post has previously reported, this language keeps alive the prospect of an executive order mandating disclosure from contractors after they have secured their contract.

The survival of Obama's ability to issue some kind of executive order increasing disclosure is the lone bright spot for those who want to bring undisclosed or "dark" money in elections into the light.

“The attacks on creating a more transparent democracy included in the bill make it even more urgent for President Obama to issue an executive order on disclosure," Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, said in a statement. "It’s clear that Republicans in Congress will do anything to stand in the way of Americans being able to see who is trying to buy influence in our democracy. It’s up to the president to act.”

A last-minute effort to include a provision that would have ended the federal presidential public financing system and used the remaining money in its account to help pay for the cost of the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2016 was left out of the bill. The campaign finance reform groups that opposed this proposal hope to fix the public financing system and not gut it by draining its funds.

The successful effort to prevent the inclusion of both McConnell’s party-candidate coordination rider and the gutting of the presidential public financing fund came after pro-reform groups were shocked by the inclusion of a rider in the 2014 omnibus budget bill that dramatically increased contribution limits to parties.

That 2014 provision was the handiwork of Senate Republican and Democratic leadership, and engendered opposition from House Democratic leadership, the House Freedom Caucus and outside groups supporting campaign finance reforms.

In a letter to the House Democratic caucus after the passage of the 2014 omnibus bill, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi noted her disgust with the measure.

"The inclusion of the outrageous campaign contribution provision gives further evidence of the need for campaign finance reform, and an opportunity for advancing initiatives to empower small donors and all American voters,” Pelosi said.

Sarbanes, who led this year's effort to beat back the McConnell rider, says that Democrats who oppose efforts to roll back campaign finance limits learned from the 2014 episode. He made sure Democrats were prepared to voice their opposition to these amendments and that leadership would actively work to exclude them from a bill.

"The difference between this year and last year is we got organized and got organized early," Sarbanes said.

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