Despite backlash from Democrats, good government groups think the language in the year-end spending bill that alters campaign finance law benefits both parties' pocketbooks too much for it to be carved out.
The watchdogs were among the first to criticize provisions buried deep in the "cromnibus" released Tuesday night that would dramatically ease spending limits on individual contributions to national political party committees. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi followed suit. The California Democrat said she learned about the provisions only one day before the carefully negotiated agreement was released. Pelosi, one of the top fundraisers for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, announced she's "deeply troubled" by how that part of the package would increase by tenfold the amount of money wealthy individuals can contribute.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Steve Israel of New York, former chairmen of the DCCC, joined in the criticism of the legislation that would allow a single individual to contribute to each national party’s three committees a total of $1.5 million per two-year election cycle.
"We should not pass legislation that just further empowers these special interests," Van Hollen told reporters, placing the blame on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the campaign contribution change and a rider that rolls back portions of a 2010 financial overhaul bill known as Dodd-Frank. The Kentucky Republican told CQ Roll Call late last week he was hoping for campaign finance changes in the appropriations deal, and has promised to continue pushing to ease spending limits when his party takes control of the Senate in January. McConnell has long fought to roll back restrictions on political money.
"No," Van Hollen said when asked whether he would have supported the changes when he was DCCC chairman. "We have limits that were [enacted] under McCain-Feingold [and] this blows an even bigger hole in those limits," he said, referring to the 2002 law that has been largely dismantled by the Supreme Court.
The campaign finance language is one of the reasons leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are urging their members to vote "no" on the cromnibus, said Co-Chairman Keith Ellison of Minnesota. It amounts to "doing exactly the opposite of what we think we should be doing, which is reducing the role of big donors in politics," he said in an interview. "We need to diminish how much a particular donor can give."
In a letter to lawmakers in both chambers, watchdog groups expressed concern that the campaign finance provision would empower K Street by allowing members of Congress to solicit massive individual donations.
"There is absolutely no justification for allowing these massive individual contributions that can only be given by millionaires and billionaires and that are bound to result in corruption and national scandals," stated a letter from Common Cause, Public Citizen and a handful of other organizations worried about the influence of money on politics.
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, speculated that both parties had something to gain from the agreement. McGehee believes Capitol Hill is attempting to empower the parties to compete against outside spending groups. "The incumbents are sitting around and saying, 'Crap, how do I protect myself?'"
When the GOP takes control of Congress in January, McConnell will continue to "eviscerate" all the legal restraints around party donations, she predicted. Because the provision specifically expands the amount donors can give to party accounts related to buildings, election recounts and conventions, rather than coordinated spending, she suspects the empowerment of K Street would be "even stronger."
Van Hollen said he would not comment on the cromnibus negotiations because he did not know "all the ins and outs" that went into writing the bill. "All I know is we all woke up this morning to find these provisions in the bill," he said.
Increasing limits on contributions to party conventions is a change both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee support. The committees recently requested a change that effectively doubles individual contributions. Under an October ruling from the Federal Election Commission, individuals can contribute $32,400 each year to the committee, plus an additional $32,400 to the respective convention committees.
But DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told reporters Wednesday afternoon that this particular change was not handled in a way that she was "comfortable" with, and she said she was still figuring out how to vote.
"Let's be clear, the DNC did not ask for any of the provisions that were inserted into the omnibus," the Florida Democrat said, denying any role in negotiations. "I was told that it happened at the highest level."
Emma Dumain contributed to this report. Related: Democrats’ Discontent on ‘Cromnibus’ Bubbles to Surface McConnell Pushes Campaign Finance Changes The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.