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Controversy Swirls as Lawmakers Eye Campaign Finance Changes

Possible Johnson amendment repeal is among most-watched developments

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., concludes a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on March 20, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., concludes a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheons in the Capitol on March 20, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers continue to debate major changes to political money regulations as part of a year-end spending package, despite opposition from numerous congressional Democrats and campaign finance watchdog groups.

Even with congressional primaries already underway, the proposals could play out in the November midterm elections if enacted, campaign finance experts on both sides of the debate say.

The two most contentious matters deal with loosening the spending limits on coordination between political parties and their candidates as well as a possible rollback of the longstanding Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and charities from endorsing political candidates.

Both could have dramatic implications for American politics, though it is unclear whether congressional negotiators will include the provisions in the forthcoming omnibus spending measure. Current government funding  runs out after midnight Friday, and there are a host of unresolved policy issues.

From the 2017 Archives: How the Appropriations Process Is Supposed to Work

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Lawmakers are also debating whether to keep existing policy riders that prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission and the IRS from working on new disclosure rules for corporate expenditures to trade associations and other groups that engage in politics. Congressional Democrats want to eliminate these bans, while many Republicans want even stronger language in place to block the rule-making process.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has long sought to relax the limits on party-candidate coordination as a way for political parties to compete with super PACs and other independent political organizations. House Democrats, led by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, last week organized a push against the provisions.

“It essentially would just totally gut any rules about party and candidate coordination spending,” said Tyler Cole, legislative director and policy counsel for Issue One, a group that favors campaign finance regulations.

That could potentially give big political donors yet another avenue of influence, say opponents of the change.

“Millionaires would be able to earmark their donations to the party committees for certain candidates, getting around the contribution limits,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen.

The change in candidate-party coordination rules also “would give the parties a lot more power to play in things like primaries,” Cole added. “Since Republicans seem to be so nervous about their electoral chances this fall, they want to make sure they nominate candidates they feel are the safest.”

Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member who is now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, says he favors loosening both the coordination rules and the Johnson Amendment, which he called “a dangerous amendment in many ways” for giving the chief tax agency discretion to police the political activity of churches and charities.

“The limits on coordinated spending between a party and their candidates have never made any sense to me. The whole purpose of a political party is to get their candidates elected,” von Spakovsky said.

Should lawmakers include the policy change in the omnibus, voters would be more likely to see more ads from the party committees and fewer from super PACs and independent organizations, he said. “By putting limits on how much the parties can spend to elect their own candidates, I think actually feeds these independent groups to spending money in areas where the parties can’t,” he added.

Though lawmakers are unlikely to include a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment, even a partial rollback could have consequences for this year’s elections. That could include politicians beginning to put “pressure on nonprofits and religious leaders and on nonprofit executives to endorse and to make statements on politics,” Cole said.

Lawmakers scrapped the Johnson Amendment rollback from the GOP tax overhaul in part because of the controversy surrounding the change and also because the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that it would cost $2.1 billion. The estimate is based on the idea that political contributors could decide to give more tax-deductible donations to churches and charities. Political donations, by contrast, are not tax deductible.

Advocates for more transparency argue that rolling back the Johnson Amendment, as well as loosening the coordination limits, could offer donors a new conduit for political money.

“It’s another way for big donors to have more influence in elections than they already do,” said Adam Smith of Every Voice, which advocates for public financing of campaigns.

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