While campaign finance reformers were busy fighting off an attempt by Sen. McConnell to include a rider in the omnibus which would allow for unlimited coordinated party spending with candidates, three other very bad campaign finance provisions slipped into the must-pass congressional omnibus as riders. All three relate to disclosure.
Via Jason Abel, one provision stops the IRS from engaging in rulemaking on 501c4 activity, which would rein in shadow Super PACs who have been engaging in heavy federal election activity without publicly disclosing their donors. A second provision bars the SEC from adopting campaign disclosure rules for certain corporations (something that campaign finance activists have been agitating for for over a year). A third provision would prevent a White House executive order (which the White House so far has shown no indication of enacting) requiring certain campaign finance disclosures from government contractors.
Together, assuming these remain in the omnibus signed by the President, these provisions will ensure that the American public has much less information than it needs to make informed and responsible choices about who is funding the groups that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence our federal elections.
It might seem like a victory for reformers that the coordinated party provision is not in there. But, to begin with, that provision fell because it had opposition not only from reformers but also from the Freedom Caucus, which feared that opening party money would allow the Republican Establishment to use money against tea party conservatives in primaries. The Freedom Caucus has no problem with lack of disclosure (so-called “dark money” in elections).
Second, while McConnell didn’t get all he wanted on campaign finance, the two riders which made it in shows how the battle has shifted. Now reformers can’t even get the disclosure that everyone used to agree was crucial to fair elections.
Third, I’m sure there were lots of things unrelated to campaign finance that Democrats had to fight about in the omnibus. Disclosure may seem relatively unimportant given those battles. We’ll see. But Democrats have not been the leaders on the issue of campaign finance reform that Democratic leaders would like the base to think it is. And that failure of leadership starts at the top, with President Obama. As I argue in Plutocrats United, he is the worst President we’ve had on campaign finance since Nixon.
UPDATE: Here is a clarification from Fred Wertheimer via email on the government contractors’ point:
Some clarification of a somewhat confusing situation:
The rider that you refer to today regarding an Executive Order for government contractors is not new but
has been included in the law for a number of years and was included again in this year’s Omnibus spending bill.
It prevents an Executive Order requiring disclosure during the bidding process for a contract. It is framed in terms
of not being able to require campaign finance disclosures as a condition of submitting a bid. But it does not apply after the
bidding process is over
The Executive Order currently before the White House would apply to government contractors after they
have received a contract.
A rider to prevent this latter kind of Executive Order that requires disclosure after the bidding process is over and
the contract is received was in this year’s House Financial Services Appropriations bill. It was successfully kept out
of the final Omnibus spending bill.
So the bottom line is that the White House still can issue an Executive Order requiring disclosure of campaign finance activities
by government contractors who already have received the contract. This is the Executive Order that the White House has been considering
and that reform groups have been advocating for many months.