A surprise provision included in the massive spending bill released by Congress on Tuesday evening would give the parties new ways to raise campaign cash.
Beginning on page 1,599 of the 1,603-page document — under a heading entitled “Other Matters” — the legislation proposes the creation of three additional accounts that would help the parties raise money for party conventions, the building or renovation of party headquarters, the relief of legal debts and election recount costs.
Campaign finance watchdog groups Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause, flagged the provision about an hour after the appropriations bill was released.
“This makes the Great Train Robbery look like a petty misdemeanor,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “These provisions have never been considered by the House or Senate, and were never even publicly mentioned before today.”
While national party committees have a contribution limit of $32,400 per year for each donor, the three new accounts would have their own separate, higher contribution limits — up to $97,200 each per year. A political party's two congressional campaign committees that raise money for House and Senate candidates would also have two of those three accounts at their donors' disposal.
In effect, that means that an individual could give up to $648,000 to the Republican National Committee or the Democratic National Committee during each two-year election cycle, and the House and Senate committees for each party could each collect $453,600 from one donor.
A wealthy political contributor could therefore give a total of more than $1.55 million to a national party through its three committees.
Proponents of raising the limits for giving to political party committees have argued that it could be a way to combat the outside money flowing into campaigns — through super-PACs and nonprofits — and allow politicians the opportunity to control the message.
Common Cause said in a statement the new accounts would open up more opportunities for corruption.
“Does anyone believe that the people providing such donations will neither expect nor receive something in return? Of course not,” said a statement from a spokesman.
“These changes take us another step back toward the pre-Watergate era, when political money was essentially unregulated and the nation endured a wave of corruption unlike any in our history,” the organization said.
Other campaign finance watchdogs also blasted the move, calling it a bipartisan “backdoor deal.”
“Rather than pass legislation to fix the corrupt existing campaign finance system, this Congress that couldn't pass a bill to simply increase transparency for campaign contributions decided to raise the price for its attentions,” said Meredith McGehee, a policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. “The price for seat at the table in Washington just went up again and even further out of reach for all but the very richest of Americans.”
The larger piece of legislation — a $1 trillion spending deal brokered by congressional leadership — would fund most of the government through September 2015. A house panel will mark it up on Wednesday, while the Senate will take a vote later in the week.
This post was updated at 1:11 p.m.