Double or something: party committees can raise double the money from donors

A stack of 100 dollar bills.
Flickr user 401(K) 2012

“Unique and constrained circumstances” or a reopening of the soft money loophole?

In another sign that the edifice of campaign finance limits is slowly crumbling, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) today issued an advisory opinion saying that national party committees can raise double the money from generous donors by earmarking contributions raised for conventions separately from those raised for day-to-day party activities.

The opinion comes in response to a joint request by the national party committees in light of a recently passed law that put the kibosh on the decades-old system of public funding of the conventions.

Campaign finance watchdogs such as the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Democracy 21 cried foul at the proposal, arguing that new, separate limits could reopen the door to the soft money corruption of the nineties.

Vice Chair Ann Ravel, a Democrat, joined her Republican colleagues in approving the request, noting that she only approved the opinion because of its narrowness. Commissioner Peterson agreed: “Soft money is not creeping in to the system.”

In a statement released after the hearing, CLC Counsel Larry Noble didn’t mince words, saying that the the opinion is “a disgraceful and activist decision that ignores the laws passed by Congress to combat corruption…”

a plane dropping money on symbols of the Democratic and Republican party
Image credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey

Citizens United on the books, disclosure provisions untouched

It’s finally official. Corporations and labor unions can spend unlimited amounts to influence federal elections.

That’s been true for some time, but today the FEC — four years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizen’s United decision and three years after the initial proposed rule-making — in a 4-2 vote approved an update to their regulations to bring them in line with the court’s ruling.

Ravel cast the deciding vote, concluding a process that followed weeks of debate between Democrats and Republicans on the Commission.

The four commissioners voting “aye” all spoke positively from their seats about the collegial process involved in crafting the regulation, looking forward to increased cooperation at an agency synonymous with partisan gridlock. But what appeared to be the beginning of a new era of cohesion among the commissioners the meeting veered back in to more familiar territory over lingering concerns about transparency.

“I’m going to ruin the kumbaya moment,” Democrat Ellen Weintraub told onlookers at the open meeting.

Weintraub and fellow Democrat Steven Walther cast the two votes against the Citizens United package, protesting that it doesn’t do enough to address disclosure, a key element of the majority’s decision in that case: “It’s impossible for me to vote for the Citizens United rule-making because it undermines what Congress was trying to achieve and what the Court envisions.”

The two cited other concerns as well, particularly with the increased freedoms given to corporations in the wake of the challenge. In particular the danger of corporations to coerce  political contributions from their employees and the potential of foreign money filtering in to our elections.

Republican commissioners were more positive about the regulatory progress.

Addressing the issue disclosure, Matthew Petersen, a Republican, argued that Congress had repeatedly tried, and failed, to enact a more intensive disclosure regime (through measures like the DISCLOSE Act, which Sunlight supports). “It’s not appropriate for an agency to try to achieve through rule-making what could not be achieved through legislating,” he said.

Explaining his vote, Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican, said he was happy the Commission would bring their regulations in line with the Constitution and would hopefully bring more clarity on permissible activities to grassroots campaign players outside of the Washington orbit. “More freedoms and more viewpoints is a good thing for our democracy,”  he said.

Commission seeks public input on McCutcheon v. FEC

In a double-barreled meeting, commissioners simultaneously took the first steps to addressing the more recent shakeup to the campaign finance landscape: the Supreme Court’s removal of aggregate contribution limits in the McCutcheon v. FEC case.

By two 6-0 votes, the commissioners approved an interim rule conforming to the decision. The Commission also will be inviting comments at a public hearing on Feb. 15, 2015, before ultimately drafting a permanent rule.

At issue is how to prevent the circumvention of contributors’ “base limits” — which are still in place — with money potentially traveling through multiple layers of PACs and joint fundraising committees.