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$1.1 Trillion Spending Pact Angers Campaign Finance Watchdogs

Alex Constantine - December 11, 2014

December 10, 2014

WASHINGTON - The $1.1 trillion spending agreement reached by House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday night would vastly expand the amount of money that donors can give political parties, bolstering party leaders’ ability to tap into the wallets of their largest contributors and reclaiming some clout from the outside groups that can accept unlimited dollars.

Depending on how the new law is interpreted by election officials, the provision could expand the amount that any one person can give to national party committees to more than $777,000 each year from what is now a maximum of $97,200. In a two-year cycle, that could add up to more than $1.5 million. Under the new rules, the extra money could be used only to pay for specific expenses, including the presidential nomination conventions, legal fees, and real estate purchases or office renovations.

Neither party’s leaders in Congress would claim responsibility for inserting the new provision, which was tucked into the final pages of the more than 1,600-page spending bill on Tuesday evening.

The campaign finance changes are among dozens of compromises reached behind closed doors that have cheered industries from coal and gas to agriculture and finance, while infuriating campaign finance watchdogs and environmental groups.

“The new increased caps on contributions to the parties represent nothing more than a rent increase for K Street lobbyists who organize and direct the flow of money from those Americans with the deepest pockets,” said Meredith McGehee, the head of the watchdog Campaign Legal Center.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, included a measure preventing the Obama administration from directing agencies like the Export-Import Bank to oppose coal-fired power plants abroad, even after President Barack Obama secured agreements from foreign countries like China to do the same.

“This rider harms U.S. foreign policy interests and throws climate change priorities and local communities in developing countries under the bus,” said Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth.

Another provision would ease rules of the Dodd-Frank securities regulation law of 2010 on some of the most exotic financial instruments that helped cause the most recent financial crisis. Republicans pushing the issue say such regulations were hitting community banks and small businesses that had nothing to do with the crisis.

“Rolling back derivatives rules in Dodd-Frank would be reckless,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who helped write several of those regulations. “Middle-class families are still paying a heavy price for the decisions to weaken the financial cops, leaving Wall Street free to load up on risk. Congress should not chip away at important reforms.”

The District of Columbia’s referendum to legalize and regulate marijuana was nullified in the agreement, but possession of the drug was decriminalized.

Republicans also flexed their muscles on funding decisions, especially on the military. Many of Obama’s efforts to trim military spending were reversed. Appropriators added four F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that the Pentagon had not requested. The defense procurement program will cost an additional $479 million. Communities around military bases will get $32 million more than Congress had intended to give just months ago in lieu of property taxes.

Still, Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill said they held their ground on the most fundamental issues. The bill does nothing to limit the carrying out of the Affordable Care Act. Funding increases secured last year for Obama’s early childhood education push were maintained. The president’s proposed funding to fight the Ebola outbreak survived. And Democrats secured funding increases for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to police Wall Street regulations in the Dodd-Frank law.

“In today’s era of slam-down politics, we were able to set aside our differences,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Working across the aisle and across the dome, we created compromise without capitulation.”

But because negotiations on the package dragged over policy details, House lawmakers also prepared to move on a short-term spending measure that would avert a government shutdown if Congress cannot pass the larger bill by Thursday, when the current funding expires.

Even with nettlesome last-minute issues, leaders in both parties expressed confidence that they would be able to keep the government running.

The House is expected to vote on the package on Thursday before sending it to the Senate. The short-term measure would provide the Senate cover and avoid a government shutdown if the Senate is unable to also pass the bill that day.

The spending bill would fund nearly all of the federal government through September 2015, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which it would fund only through February, in retaliation for Obama’s unilateral action to defer the deportation of as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. Congressional Republicans plan to take up funding for the agency - which has primary responsibility for carrying out the president’s immigration directive - early next year, when they will control both chambers of Congress and believe they will have more leverage.

The rush Tuesday to post the legislation underscored the 113th Congress’ dubious record as one of the least productive in modern history - governing by deadlines and cliffs of its own making, and struggling to pass even some of the most pro forma pieces of legislation.

“There is something about legislative institutions that don’t function until there is a hard deadline, and usually around here that hard deadline is Christmas Day,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Republican leadership. “Things don’t get done until there’s a crisis, and that crisis is upon us.”

Thune added that while he did not expect a government shutdown, Congress had again let a deadline slip: “Does it get done by Thursday night?” he asked, referring to the original target for passage. “It’s looking increasingly bleak for that to happen, but I think it gets done.”