Activists see high dollar limits as a power grab by GOP establishment.
Tea party activists are attacking a campaign finance rider in the $1.1 trillion spending bill that they view as a sneaky power grab by establishment Republicans designed to undermine outside conservative groups.
The provision would increase the amount of money a single donor could give to national party committees each year from $97,200 to as much as $777,600 by allowing them to set up different funds for certain expenses. The change would be a huge boost for party committees that have faced steep challenges in recent years from well-funded outside groups.
Disgruntled activists fear the committees will unleash the added cash against conservative candidates in primaries, making it even harder for them to unseat establishment-friendly incumbents. Most tea party groups have political action committees for which individual donations are capped at $10,000 per election cycle. Some also have super PACs, which do not have any contribution limits.
The same conservative activists have long advocated for looser campaign finance laws, but they argue the language of the rider in the 1,600-page bill gives the establishment wing an unfair advantage by tweaking the law specifically for donations to party committees.
“Conservatives support the First Amendment and believe there should be no limits on political speech,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “Unfortunately, the new limits included in the omnibus only increase political speech for party insiders while silencing the majority of Americans who are fed up with Washington.”
Conservative talk radio host Mark Levin opened his show Wednesday night by warning listeners of the legislation. Calling the rider “an outrage among many outrages” in the spending bill, Levin characterized it as a “power hungry” move by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Do you know why he’s doing that? It’s to destroy any conservative any group that seeks to challenge an incumbent, to destroy the entire primary process,” Levin alleged. “That’s what McConnell is up to.”
McConnell was one of the Republican incumbents targeted by tea party activists in this year’s primaries. But, like most other establishment candidates this cycle, he defeated his primary opponent. He will take over as the Senate majority leader in January.
Asked to comment, McConnell’s office simply noted that the Kentucky Republican was not responsible for the proposed rider.
Under the campaign finance provision, party committees will be able to increase their overall contribution limit by setting up different funds for building and legal costs. At face value, the language would seem to forbid the new cash from being used to pay for television ads, polling or other electioneering.
But tea party activists fear – and lawyers and political scientists expect — that the parties will find creative ways to stretch the new cash.
“They’ve made nice little categories here, but the question is whether they’re going to play games in interpreting what fits into these categories,” said Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts professor who specializes in studying political parties.
Even if the new funds created by this week’s rider are exclusively used for the narrowly intended purposes, “it still frees up money for TV ads” by allowing the parties to defray other bills they previously would have been required to pay out of their general coffers, La Raja added.
He pointed out that, in the days before the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned unlimited so-called “soft money” contributions to the parties, that cash was legally supposed to be used exclusively for “party building activities,” but the parties found ways to use it for TV ads that, to most viewers, seemed like plain old campaign ads.
Multiple GOP party committee officials declined to comment on the record. But a senior Republican Party official supportive of the rider argued: “The committees are the most transparent entities, so this is a step in the right direction for people who believe there’s too much money in politics.”
The tea party’s opposition to the rider puts it in rare agreement with progressives, who also are criticizing the provision but for different reasons. Democratic Party committees would also benefit from the measure, but they do not have the same level of intra-party strife as the Republicans.
In a statement calling on Democrats to oppose the spending bill, Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said the rider would gut “campaign finance laws” and “would represent Democrats marching in the exact wrong direction.” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has also cited the campaign finance provision as one of the two reasons for Democrats to sink the bill.
The tea party groups opposed to the rider include FreedomWorks and Citizens United, who argued the legislation was unfair.
“More and more, voters are evaluating candidates on their individual principles, not by political identity. So it’s important that all individuals can be heard in the process, not just the party machines,” said Jackie Bodnar, spokeswoman for FreedomWorks.
In a statement Thursday, Citizens United President David Bossie said: “What congressional leaders are doing is what they do best: protecting incumbents and the two-party system. The omnibus rider will only strengthen the Washington establishment in both parties and not create a level playing field for candidates who are outside the Beltway.”
In a column titled “The One Thing McConnell Will Fight For” in the Conservative Review, Daniel Horowitz made a point that further fanned the fury among the tea party activists: Establishment Republicans are fine with pushing campaign finance changes in the spending bill, but not with including legislation against President Barack Obama’s recent executive order on immigration.
“This is unreal,” Horowitz writes. “The Republican leader has no interest in fighting Obama’s illegal amnesty and is vehemently opposed to attaching a defund rider [on the immigration order] to the budget bill, yet he is willing to stand up and delay the sacrosanct budget bill in order to grow the power of the political parties.”