For Watchdogs, Budget Deal a Mixed Bag

For Watchdogs, Budget Deal a Mixed Bag

For the past couple of weeks, a number of controversial riders aimed at deregulating the campaign finance system and curtailing President Obama’s ability to increase the transparency of undisclosed political spending have been at the center of federal budget negotiations. A coalition of progressive reformers has been mobilizing to stop the riders.

And now, with the announcement of a budget deal late Tuesday, it’s become clear that campaign finance reformers won some and lost some.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had tried to push through a rider that would have lifted the cap on how much political parties may spend in coordination with candidates. Reform watchdogs had objected that it would create an end-run around the contribution limits, while the conservative House Freedom Caucus had panned it as a bid to stifle Tea Party candidates not sanctioned by the Republican mainstream. Ultimately, that measure was dropped from the deal, suggesting that McConnell had no appetite for an intra-party battle.

"The last thing the American people want is to give big donors more influence in politics which is exactly what McConnell’s proposal to lift party coordination rules would have done,” Nick Nyhart, president of Every Voice Center, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the bill includes other measures that attack efforts to unveil secret money in our elections.”

Those included a yearlong provision that effectively blocks the IRS from finalizing new regulations now in the works that would define what constitutes political activity by social welfare and other tax-exempt groups. Reform advocates say clarifying the rules is vital to pulling back the curtain on undisclosed political spending by groups that say they promote the social welfare but focus principally on elections.

Another rider blocks the SEC from requiring public corporations to more fully disclose their political spending. Though progressive watchdogs unanimously oppose these riders, they may not have made much difference anyway. The IRS had been dragging its feet on rulemaking for months, and SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White has signaled her unwillingness to impose a disclosure requirement on corporations.

Progressives and their allies on Capitol Hill also successfully beat back a rider that would have barred President Obama from taking executive action to require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending, which has been a major policy priority for reformers. Again, though, the White House does not appear poised to issue such an executive order—and Republicans likely knew that going into negotiations.

Also left out of the deal was a last-minute measure that would have defunded the (already irrelevant) presidential public financing system by eliminating the tax write-off that funds the program. McConnell also (unsurprisingly) broke his promise to institute mandatory Senate e-filing for campaign finance records.

Bottom line: the most consequential campaign finance rider—McConnell’s increased coordination measure—was killed. But measures to increase disclosure have now been blocked—a partial loss for reform advocates.