“If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring,” John Oliver said in 2014 of the tireless efforts of telecom monopolists to get rid of net neutrality. It’s a tried and true strategy of the wealthy and their legislative allies, and, while Donald Trump’s destructive antics continue to hold America’s attention with the same unyielding grip he uses on foreign dignitaries’ hands, there are a lot of boring things ambling through Congress with corporate favors crammed deep inside.
And so it is with the House’s appropriations bill, which includes riders that would further pare back campaign finance rules that have already been decimated over the last decade, in large part through Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC. These rulings and a Congress hell-bent on deregulating the campaign finances system has lead to increasingly expensive elections, with the money that helps candidates win often pouring in from anonymous interests. Watchdog groups and journalists call these billions from shadowy sources “dark money.”
The riders attached to the appropriations bill take aim at how the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) enforce campaign finance law.
In the case of the two aimed at the IRS and the SEC, Republicans are seeking to keep the agency from increasing transparency. The politicians behind these measures want to make sure the IRS never cracks down on the wealthy interest that are anonymously passing money through tax exempt nonprofit groups – groups that are only allowed to hide the names of their donors under the assumption that they won’t get involved in politics. This is a clear flouting of tax law, but the IRS has been slow to act – and one of these riders aims to ensure that it never will.
The SEC-related rider would make sure that that agency – Washington’s top cop on the financial beat – never forces corporations to disclose to their shareholders when they are using their money to fund a political candidates or causes.
Finally – in good congressional form – the rider aimed at the FEC is both the most complicated and, according to watchdog groups who have been sounding the alarm, the most insidious. At the moment, only one trade association at a time can ask the employees of a corporation for money. The rider would bar the FEC from enforcing this rule in 2018, allowing every trade association under the sun to receive money from a given corporation during that year.
“Should this rider become law, these specialty PACs would be free to solicit donations from a drastically expanded pool of potential donors, and corporate executives would be permitted to give contributions to multiple trade associations, increasing the disparity between large-dollar donors and the vast majority of Americans,” warned Meredith McGehee, head of policy for the good government group Issue One.
These trade associations are already powerful groups, some of which are well known publicly, such as the American Petroleum Institute or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Some of them are more obscure, like the Association for Christian Retail. But most exist to lobby for policies that would help their members’ bottom lines, sometimes at the expense of workers, the economy, or the environment. If these riders pass the House, these groups will have a much larger war chest with which to punch their agendas through.