The High Cost to Democracy of the Budget Bill (The Huffington Post)


If the Republicans, some Democrats and President Obama get their way, we will soon have a $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill (referred to as "cromnibus") that will fund the government for nine months. However, the real cost of the bill is a lot more than $1.1 trillion. It is the dramatic escalation of the selling of our democracy to the wealthiest Americans. While this will be a clear victory for Wall Street, energy companies, and others who believe that our elected representatives should be responsive to their wealthiest supporters, those of us who naïvely believe that our elected representatives owe their highest duty to all of us will suffer a major loss if this bill becomes law.

Cromnibus has a number of early holiday gifts for well-funded special interests, including dismantling parts of Dodd-Frank intended to prevent Wall Street bets on risky investments from being subsidized by the taxpayers. The most pernicious provision, however, dramatically raises the limit on the maximum an individual can contribute to the national political parties, which will help ensure that Wall Street and other special interest continue to get their way, while making the interests of the average voter less and less relevant to our government. In fact, there is a certain in-your-face practicality to a bill that includes major handouts for some of the nation's richest special interests, while providing a new opportunity for those special interests to show their gratitude in the form of previously illegal massive political contributions.

Currently, the maximum a person can give to a national political party is $129,600 per year. Although this limit is out of reach of all but the wealthiest citizens, cromnibus amends the campaign finance laws to allow an individual to contribute $777,600 to the national political party committees every year, or more than $1.5 million dollars over a two-year election cycle. A married couple will be able to give more than $3 million dollars to the party over a two-year election cycle. This is in addition to their contributions to candidates, Super PACs, candidate Super PACs, candidate Leadership PACs, regular PACs and the numerous Dark Money organizations that don't disclose their donors.

Cromnibus passed the House by a vote of 219-206, with 57 Democrats voting in favor, while progressive Democrats and conservative tea party Republicans voting against it. It is not surprising that most Republicans support these changes since the Party opposes limiting the influence of money in our elections.

But, it is hard to fathom how some Democrats can claim to believe that big donors have too much influence over our elections, yet support this dramatic change that further entrenches power and influence for the wealthiest among us. Even President Obama has urged that the bill be passed and promised to sign it. But, if the President signs this legislation, he will lose whatever little credibility he has left as a supporter of campaign finance reform and his campaign promise of hope will be reduced to us hoping our democracy survives our government being sold to the highest bidders.

Those supporting this Faustian bargain are feeding us myths about the changes in the law in an effort to sell us on being sold-out. Here are just a few of myths we are hearing and the reality.

Myth 1: There is no danger of corruption since any money given under these increased limits can only be used by the political parties for "non-campaign" related activities, such as funding their presidential conventions, funding election recounts and the construction and maintenance of their buildings.

The reality: It is true that the new $777,600 annual limit comes from creating a new contribution limit to allow an individual to give up to $97,200 to a national party committee (the RNC or DNC) to support the presidential nominating convention and give the national party committee, and the Senatorial and House committees $97,200 each for the expenses to prepare for and hold recounts and other legal expenses and another $97,200 to pay for the expenses of constructing and operating buildings for the parties.

The problem is that all money is fungible. Right now, the national, Senatorial and Congressional committees of the political parties raise and spend money for things that political parties are supposed to do, such as support candidates and, when necessary, help with post-election recounts, establish offices, pay office expenses, hire staff and, for the national party committee, hold the nominating convention. Because of these activities, the limits on what an individual can give to the three national party committees is already higher than what can be given to other committees that contribute to candidates and the current law provides additional ways for them to spend money to support their candidates.

If Congress now allows wealthy individuals to give six times the $129,600 base limits to pay for what are normal party expenditures, it will just free up more of the party's money to spend on direct candidate support. And don't think the donors don't know this. And, of course, there is no longer anything stopping a super wealthy couple from writing $10,400 checks to each candidate of their choice and still give $3 million to the party committees per election cycle.

Myth 2: Raising the limits on what goes to the parties will result in more disclosure and less use of corporate money to fund the conventions and other political activity.

The reality: Even if this was true, allowing wealthy individuals to directly buy influence with the political parties with massive contributions does not turn influence buying into a benefit for democracy just because the influence buying is disclosed.

But, the assumption that there will be less undisclosed money is not based in reality. You can read the entire 1,603 page budget bill and you will find nothing that limits how much individuals, corporations and unions can spend to influence elections through Dark Money groups that do not disclose their donors nor limits how much individuals and corporations can give to fund the conventions. In fact, efforts to increase disclosure have repeatedly failed in Congress. So, exactly why shouldn't we expect the wealthiest donors to just give $777,600 to the national party committees on top of what they already spend to influence elections through undisclosed avenues? Will party leaders ask the contributors to pledge not to give undisclosed contributions to other groups that influence elections? Will the parties agree that corporate and labor money will not be used to fund the conventions in any way? Don't hold your breath.

Myth 3: Money given to the political parties does not have the same corrupting influence as money given directly to the candidates.

The reality: Most donors who give $500,000, $1 million or even $3 million to the party are not concerned about the account in which their money is placed. What they care about is that the contributions were solicited by party leaders, members of Congress, and the President, these stewards of our government will know who the big donors are when they come calling, seeking special favors. And you can be assured that they will not only be known, but these donors will be given a special seat at the table.

To give you an idea of how few people can take advantage of this provision, the Center for Responsive Politics was only able to identify 646 people who contributed $117,000 in the 2012 election, which was then the maximum an individual could give in the aggregate in all federal elections. The new limit on what can be given to just the national party committees will be over six times what only 646 gave to candidates, PACs and party committees in 2012. The number of people who will be able to reach the new mega-donor status is probably small enough that it would have been more efficient for Congress to name those people in the bill and give them permanent offices in Congress and the White House.

Myth 4: Voting for this bill is the only way to avoid a government shutdown, which is the top priority.

The reality: It is disgraceful that Congress cannot pass a clean funding bill in a timely manner. But a government shutdown is not the only alternative and even Senate Majority Leader Reid admitted they should be able to pass a clean three month extension. Regardless, no elected leader can credibly claim to believe that the influence of money on our political system is damaging our democracy, and then exponentially increase that damage just to buy a truce over the budget for a few additional months. The holidays are upon us and members of Congress want to show the public they can work together to avoid a messy, stupid and expensive government shutdown and then go home. But this is not really about a government shutdown, this is about fighting to ensure our democracy serves everyone, which is the most important job our elected leaders have.

Larry Noble is Senior Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center; Adjunct Professor at George Washington University Law School and former FEC General Counsel. This opinion piece originally ran in The Huffington Post on December 12, 2014

To view it there, click here.