GOP Budget Rider Takes Aim at Campaign-Finance Rules

GOP Budget Rider Takes Aim at Campaign-Finance Rules

Republicans are once again using the politically volatile process of funding the government as a clearinghouse for a whole host of ideological riders—from defunding Planned Parenthood to curtailing the ability of the government to enforce labor and environmental regulations.

And congressional Republicans are unified in backing all these riders—except one. Conservatives stirred up a GOP firestorm this month over a spending bill rider introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that would remove limits on how much political parties may spend in coordination with candidates.

Tea Party conservatives argue that the rider is a blatant power play to bolster the Republican establishment’s ability to beat back conservative candidates who don’t toe the party line. A group of 50 prominent conservatives circulated a letter last week declaring that “the McConnell rider provides preferential treatment to the Washington establishment and subordinates the voices of those who contribute to other multi-candidate organizations.”

The Freedom Caucus, a faction of 40 Tea Party-oriented conservatives who often act as a collective thorn in the side of leadership, came out in stern opposition to the rider. This led to speculation over whether conservatives might team up with House Democrats in opposition to the spending bill if the coordination deregulations remained solely aimed at the political parties.

But any hope of a left-right coalition evaporated when Freedom Caucus members rolled out their solution: New rules to permit coordination between unrestricted super PACs and the candidates that they back.

“There’s McConnell’s campaign-finance issue that’s being talked about, which we think is not the direction in which we need to go unless you’re going to free up the restrictions on everyone,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan said, as The Hill reported, at a Heritage Foundation conservative roundtable on Capitol Hill last week.  

Campaign-finance reform advocates countered that coordination restrictions are the only thing keeping a flood of unlimited super PAC money from completely overtaking individual campaigns. In its Citizens United ruling in 2010, the Supreme Court deregulated only campaign expenditures made independently of candidates.

Yes, the supposed firewall between candidates and the outside groups backing them has increasingly broken down—particularly given partisan gridlock and inaction at the Federal Election Commission.

But the so-called “compromise” would have the effect of destroying the candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement. Wertheimer called the plan “an unmitigated disaster” that “certainly does nothing to make an already unacceptable McConnell rider in any way acceptable.”

The Freedom Caucus’s threat to jam up the spending bill in the House appears to have drawn the attention of Republican leadership. As The Washington Post reported Monday, Congressional aides familiar with the negotiation process said “the campaign finance rule could possibly be adapted to ease those concerns by including language that would allow the rule to apply to potential third-party committees that might be created in the future.”

The question now is whether the Freedom Caucus has any chance getting such language into the law. It’s unclear whether McConnell would shift his focus from strengthening the parties to further deregulating outside players. It’s also unclear whether the White House would outright veto a bill that includes a rider that congressional Democrats have called a poison pill.

But progressive activists have moved aggressively to block the coordination rider, along with several others that relate to campaign financing. The riders take direct aim at President Barack Obama’s ability to unilaterally increase disclosure of secret political money.

One rider would defund any executive branch effort to require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending. Another would block the Internal Revenue Service from issuing new rules to define what constitutes political activity. Still another would block the Securities and Exchange Commssion from requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending.

In the long run, the fate of such riders may not make much difference in any case. Despite progressive prodding, the Obama administration has done little to rein in undisclosed “dark” money via executive action in any form.