A Crash Course in Congressional Mischief

After years of excoriating Congress for not legislating, Americans got a crash course Tuesday night about the mischief that can transpire when Congress actually fulfills its duties.

With both parties (for a change) committed to passing a spending bill by Thursday to avoid a government shutdown, the comprehensive legislation became a lobbyist’s delight. These omnibus last-minute bills traditionally pass Congress with virtually no debate. And since Barack Obama would never veto legislation to fund the government over minor provisions, anything small snuck into the bill is as good as inscribed into law.

Which brings us to the gem that Matea Gold of the Washington Post discovered on Page 1,599 of the 1,603-page bill. The provision — inserted in the legislation by persons unknown — would suddenly allow a married couple to give as much as $1.56 million to their political party and its committees in a two-year election cycle.

No, that isn’t a typo. Without resorting to Super PACs or taking advantage of a new loophole from the Supreme Court, couples or individuals could give roughly eight times more to their party in 2015 than they could in 2014. As election law expert Kenneth Gross told the Washington Post, “The cost of an ambassadorship just went up.”

Technically, this new giving can only go to three designated areas — convention costs, recount expenses and building funds. But while nothing is certain until regulations are written, it is a safe bet that these categories are likely to be porous. Hypothetically, funds for a new addition to the Democratic National Committee that houses the computers that contain the party’s voter files might also be used to update these registration lists. If nothing else, the parties would no longer have to take money from their general operating funds to pay for these activities.

A case can be made for strengthening the political parties in a Super PAC era. If the parties were too financially powerful in the 1990s when they were the only conduits for unregulated “soft money” contributions, now they are suffering from, in effect, being mere millionaires in a billionaire age. This is especially true as Super PACs are beginning to take on many of the traditional functions of parties like candidate recruitment, voter contact and polling.

It is worth recalling that parties are a force for responsibility and moderation in politics — since their ultimate goal is winning elections rather than enforcing an ideological agenda. Also, as ongoing organizations, the Republican and Democratic National Committees will still be around when the enthusiasms of the current generation of Super PAC donors wane or turn to art collecting and buying sports teams.

As a result, there could have been a robust public debate over the best way to fund political parties in this new electoral environment. Both Republican and Democratic party leaders — as well as the candidates themselves — should come to realize that they are the big losers when the mega-rich dominate campaigns through Super PACs.

It would have been possible to imagine bipartisan legislation in the next few years that would have traded increased legal contribution limits for enhanced disclosure of Super PAC and “dark money” spending. Or even swapped more generous giving for a functioning Federal Election Commission.

Instead Congress in its infinite wisdom decided that “dark money” legislating was a wiser solution. And blaming this one exclusively on the Republicans is probably not true, especially since the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is currently $20 million in debt.

The result is that the McCain-Feingold legislation, signed with such high hopes 12 years ago, is now as outmoded as Morse Code. And voters (or, at least, that small remnant who still care) have an entirely new reason to scorn Congress. Quite an accomplishment for a group of stealth middle-of-the-night legislators.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.