US Senate Expands Americans’ First Amendment Rights to Contribute Money to Politics With “Cromnibus” Package

After several days of high-drama in Congress over the passage of the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” (Omnibus + Continuing Resolution), the bill has been passed and the federal government will remain open until September 2015.

While many in the punditocracy always jump for joy at the event at “getting something done” (whatever that means), advocates of limited government and reining in out of control spending in Washington have little to celebrate.

However, for those who favor expanding First Amendment liberties to donate freely to politics, it’s a big, big win. Tucked away in a section on page 1,599, a provision creating three separate accounts for the political parties and their campaign committees in Congress substantially raises contribution limits from individual donors.

Previously a donor could only give $32,400 to a national campaign committee, its House campaign committee, and Senate campaign committee. Under the new law that same donor can donate $97,200 a each committee’s accounts for presidential nominating conventions, party building and construction costs, and legal expense such as recounts and court battles.

This brings the total amount that a single donor can contribute to the RNC and DNC from $32,400 to $324,00, and to a House and Senate campaign committee from $32,400 $226,800, with all party committee contributing combined equal to $777,600 for an individual contributor and $1,555,200 for married couple contributing the maximum amount.

Naturally, this has many crying foul with the typical claims of “selling America” to “the highest bidder.” But this is not and has never been the case. Money and other in-kind financial contributions have always been vital to grassroots American politics.

In order to be effective, candidates, parties, the media, and citizens groups must be able to raise and spend how much is needed to get their message out. Without the ability to raise money, and increasingly lots of it, only entrenched and well-established players in politics will win the day.

Since the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which I unapologetically support, corporations and unions have been allowed to spend unlimited funds from their treasuries on independent political advocacy not coordinated with candidates for office or political parties. This is has led to a flurry of independent groups representing all kinds of issues spending millions on electing or defeating candidates—a very good thing for robust civic engagement.

The flip-side of this deregulation, though, is that candidates and political parties have remained in their self-imposed shackles with the existing contribution limits. Such an imbalance has lead to a subversion of the parties in their traditional role of aggregating various disparate political factions under one collective umbrella.

Indeed, much of a candidate’s resources used to come from his or her party in the form so-called “soft money,” or money spent by a party in the form of activities like get-out-the-vote efforts, TV advertising on the candidate’s behalf, and producing campaign literature and memorabilia like signs, buttons, etc. But in 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known colloquially as McCain-Feingold after its Senate co-sponsors, which banned soft-money allegedly to reduce corruption and the appearance of corruption.

Since then, the job of supporting candidates has increasingly been taken over by independent expenditure committees like 527 groups and activist nonprofits.

This has lead to a large balkanization in American politics where candidates care less about party unity and focusing on the long-term and more on the quixotic issues of billionaires like Sheldon Adleson on the right and Tom Steyer on the left, not that there’s anything wrong with these individuals using their fortunes advocating for the causes they believe in.

Now, perhaps an argument can be made that such a dramatic change in campaign finance law should not have been made while attached to an massive 1,600 page Cromnibus spending bill with little debate. I’ll buy that. I’m big supporter of changing the rules in Congress to mandate that all bills be devoted to single-issues so members know what they’re voting on. But this was a necessary rider because last year there was a (positive) change in another large bill that banned tax-financing of political conventions so this was a pressing issue to ensure that the parties can nominate the respective candidates for president on schedule.

Failing to do would leave the issue uncertain with pro-speech suppressing candidates free to demagogue the issue using procedural tricks to keep legislation expanding donor rights from ever getting to the floor for debate.

But as of this writing, Congress has passed the bill but President Obama has not signed it yet. He could veto it for reasons at least in part relating to the pro-First Amendment provision in it. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Let’s hope that this bill does become law so more citizens in the party system can have greater access to funds to once again make political parties a vital part of American democracy.