A swirl of contradictions defined political money trends in 2015, a year dominated by unfettered super PACs and secretive groups, but also by candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who rejected big outside money and still managed to fire up voters.
Congress set the tone even before the year began by quietly slipping a rider into omnibus spending legislation late in 2014 that blew the lid off the limits on contributions to the national political parties. The previous party contribution cap had been $64,800 per election cycle, but the new rules allow parties to pocket as much as $1.6 million from a single individual for special accounts that pay for conventions, recounts, and buildings.
GOP leaders promptly set about scooping up six-figure contributions from CEOs, financiers, and lobbyists for those special party accounts. Republicans moved to exploit the new, higher party limits much more swiftly than Democrats: the Republican National Committee alone has collected more than $18 million for its convention, building, and recount kitties, while the Democratic National Committee has netted less than $3 million for those special accounts.
For candidates, 2015 ushered in a new era of brazen disregard for the rules that technically bar super PACs from coordinating their activities with candidates. In 2010, the Supreme Court deregulated independent political spending expressly on the grounds that expenditures made at arm’s length from candidates could not be corrupting.
But this year candidates largely sloughed off the fiction that super PACs operate independently from their campaigns. Single-candidate super PACs became the norm, and candidates increasingly farmed out essential campaign functions to these supposedly independent groups.
Florida GOP Governor Jeb Bush went so far as to personally launch his own super PAC and start raising money for it early this year, explaining with a wink and a nod that this was all legal because he had not yet officially declared. This drew an FEC complaint from watchdogs, who said Bush had broken the rules that bar hopefuls from “testing the waters” of a candidacy with unregulated money.
The FEC, of course, took no action—this being the year that the agency officially admitted its own irrelevancy. In May, then-Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel told The New York Times that “the likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” and that the FEC, its six commissioners divided evenly between representatives of the two major parties, is “worse than dysfunctional.”
The Internal Revenue Service also made no move to block politically active social welfare groups, which have continued to proliferate, from spending most of their money on campaigns. Republicans stepped up their attacks this year on the IRS over its self-admitted targeting of Tea Party groups in 2013. This month the GOP officially blocked the IRS from taking any action on that front—but more on that later.
Sensing that anything goes, secretive tax-exempt groups swooped in to raise ten times more than they had at this point in the 2012 election. A network of tax-exempts underwritten in part by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch announced plans to spend an astonishing $889 million on the election, more than the entire GOP spent four years ago.
Even as big outside money soared, however, some wondered whether it was doing anybody any good. The Right to Rise super PAC backing Bush, for one, raised a record $100 million and spent about $54 million of it—yet Bush’s polling remained stuck in the single digits.
In the meantime, the self-financed Trump continued to substantially lead the GOP pack, and Sanders fueled his candidacy almost entirely with low-dollar donations. Both Trump and Sanders assailed super PACs and rejected outside group support, touching a chord in voters increasingly disgusted with money in politics. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton, by contrast, struggled to fend off questions about her cozy Wall Street ties.
Amid growing public cynicism and frustration, some experts argued that what the system really needs is more big money for the political parties. This month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, tried to slip a provision that would have done just that into Congress’s 11th-hour omnibus spending bill. McConnell ultimately dropped his bid to lift the cap on what parties may spend in coordination with candidates, partly due to opposition from conservative House members who said the move would marginalize the Tea Party.
But Republicans did insert in the bill a rider that essentially blocks the IRS from finalizing any new rules to constrain political activity by tax-exempt groups, along with another rider that makes it impossible for the Securities and Exchange Commission to force political disclosure on public corporations. An accompanying package of tax extenders also included language that preserves a tax loophole sought by hotel, restaurant, and gambling interests.
So the year ended largely as it began—with a backdoor move by Congress to both roll back political money limits and reward campaign donors. On the threshold of an election that by some estimates will cost $10 billion, voter distrust with Congress is veering dangerously close to disillusion with democracy itself. Voter anger derives from several sources—but politicians’ increasingly unabashed embrace of big money is unquestionably one of them.