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Campaign Finance Riders Face Fight in Year-End Spending Bill

Progressive and political money groups say they will intensify their lobbying in the coming days to prevent four campaign finance measures from hitching a ride on a year-end spending deal.

With a deadline to reach agreement on government-wide funding less than two weeks away, the effort will be no easy pitch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., authored one of the measures, which would relax limits on coordination between political parties and candidates.

“They’re swimming upstream every step of the way,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University professor who specializes in campaign and election issues. “Legislators are going to be hard-pressed to vote against an appropriation bill that’s otherwise appealing to them on the basis of some of these riders.”

Opponents of the measures argue they would decrease transparency and would make it easier for “soft money” to flow to the political parties. McConnell and other backers of rolling back limits on party-candidate coordination say it would help political parties compete in the campaign funding scene increasingly dominated by super PACs that can raise unlimited funds.

McConnell’s measure was added to the fiscal 2016 Financial Services Appropriations bill (S 1910), while the three other items were included in the House’s version (HR 2995).

The provisions in the House bill would prevent the White House from requiring campaign finance disclosures by government contractors and put the brakes on a Securities and Exchange Commission effort to require public corporations to disclose their campaign finance activities. Finally, a third provision would make sure the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t issue new regulations aimed at defining political activity for nonprofit groups.

“Republicans do not want a shutdown, so there’s space to push to keep a lot of these things off,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said the panel wouldn’t comment or speculate on funding levels “or policy provisions that may or may not be included in future legislation.” Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said he didn’t have guidance on his boss’ campaign finance rider.

Public Citizen also is working through a broader coalition to keep all riders — not just those dealing with campaign finance — off the funding package, Gilbert said. 

When it comes to the campaign finance issues, she said, her coalition is looking to the White House and congressional Democrats to “be strong.” But the groups are uncertain of their chance for success.

“This is McConnell’s favorite issue,” she said. “There is the fear that things that are quote-unquote considered small will slip through.”

Public Citizen and several other groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21 and the League of Women Voters pressed their case in a letter to lawmakers. 

“Secret money in our elections provides widespread opportunities for government corruption and prevents holding public officials and influence-buying donors accountable for corrupt practices,” the letter said. 

“Our organizations strongly urge you to oppose the four damaging campaign finance riders contained in pending appropriations bills and to oppose any new rider that may be offered that would weaken or undermine the campaign finance laws,” the letter added.

The organizations are especially wary since last year’s budget deal (PL 113-235) included a rider boosting the contribution limits to political parties.

Rick Hasen, a political law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said the latest McConnell provision could revive much of the “soft money” that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul (PL 107-155) sought to rein in.

“Political parties have been hobbled by super PACs,” Hasen said. But the McConnell rider would “raise the specter of people getting their influence and access through political parties.”

Hasen said Democrats are unlikely to block the riders or get help from President Barack Obama, who has warned Republicans about “ideological” fights over policy issues in omnibus legislation. 

“Democrats talk the talk of wanting strong campaign finance laws, but many Democratic lawyers are working behind the scenes to loosen them,” Hasen said. “I wouldn’t count on Obama to use his power to block those measures.” 

But Senate Democrats may push back harder than anticipated. 

“Democrats have said we are against all poison pill riders including these ones and we mean it,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. “They need our votes and we have said no poison pill riders.” 

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