Represent.Us Blog

Sneak attack! Congress is co-opting a 'must-pass' budget bill to defund campaign finance laws and help them raise dark money for their campaigns

August 9, 2017

By: Donny Shaw

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that politics and Big Money don’t mix well. In a recent poll, 90% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans said that money has too much influence in political campaigns.

But members of Congress who benefit from the millions of dollars spent on their behalf don’t agree. They have launched a sneak attack to help billionaires and special interests pump even more money into elections.

Buried inside the 2018 Financial Services appropriations bill are four policy riders that would embolden dark money donors and prohibit the enforcement of campaign finance rules.

So what do these riders do?

One keeps open a loophole letting dark money flow into elections. This loophole allows anyone—billionaires, corporations, and possibly even foreign entities—to secretly fund political campaigns by funneling money through non-profits that don’t have to disclose their donors.

Dark-money groups claim to be 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofits, but most of them are in fact focused on politics and should not qualify for non-profit status. This rider prohibits the IRS from issuing any rules to close this loophole or set limits on the political activities of these groups.

Another would create a whole new class of dark money non-profits: churches! A rider in the bill would let churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations spend money on elections.

For the past 63 years, the Johnson Amendment has prevented churches from engaging in politics. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize political activity in support of candidates and measures they may not agree with—so the thinking goes.

This rider would prohibit the IRS from enforcing the Johnson Amendment, and since churches don’t have to reveal their donors, they would likely become conduits for dark money.

There’s also a rider that lets trade groups squeeze workers harder for political contributions. The provision lets them “double dip” by soliciting their member companies’ employees even if another trade group has already asked them for money.

Currently, election law limits companies to only one trade group PAC solicitation per year, but the rider would prohibit enforcement of that restriction and let trade groups freely solicit funds from all of their member companies’ employees, and their families.

Finally there's a rider that blocks the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring publicly traded companies to disclose to their shareholders the amount of money they contribute to trade associations. Trade associations like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on lobbying, political ads, and campaign contributions, but they don’t have to disclose their donors.

It’s a convenient way for companies to spend money on politics without offending their customers or shareholders. Blocking the SEC from forcing disclosure means these trade groups can continue expanding their work as shadowy influence brokers.

Congress doesn't want you to know they are passing these riders. 

Congress knows that no one likes these ideas. They know these riders could never pass on their own merit. So they have attached them to a “must-pass” bill that is almost guaranteed to become law.

The riders are attached to an appropriations bill that is on track to be included in the omnibus that needs to be signed into law by September 30 to prevent the government from shutting down. They were added to the appropriations bill by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services, and they have been approved by the full Appropriations Committee.