An Appropriations Bill Is Threatening to Make Politicians More Dependent on Big Donors

U.S. currency in 100 dollar denominations is displayed for illustration purposes, in Washington, March 31, 2014.

Instead of taking steps to fight political corruption, some in Congress are attempting to open a new avenue for wealthy donors to ingratiate themselves to political leaders. Currently, an individual can give no more than $2,700 per election to a candidate for federal office, but a little-noticed provision in a draft government funding bill—the fiscal year 2018 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill—could be the beginning of the end of these limits.

The $2,700 ceiling—$5,400 total, if one supports a candidate in both a primary and a general election—was imposed more than 40 years ago “to limit the actuality and appearance of corruption” that results from large donations to candidates for public office. This limit is one of the cornerstones of the Federal Election Campaign Act, a law strengthened in the wake of Watergate to protect against the money-in-politics scandals of the Nixon era.

Although recent court cases, including Citizens United, have allowed unlimited funds to be spent indirectly in U.S. elections—through super PACs and shadowy nonprofits—Americans continue to take it for granted that a wealthy person cannot give a candidate a six-figure check. The draft bill, however, would enable candidates to fundraise and spend money in close concert with political parties, which are able to accept contributions that exceed $1 million.

As noted by Brendan Fischer at the Campaign Legal Center, candidates can already participate in entities called “joint fundraising committees” (JFCs), which can raise large contributions. Using a JFC, a candidate can solicit funds jointly with national and state political party organizations, aggregating their contribution limits. Most headlines describing fundraisers that cost tens of thousands of dollars per guest to attend—in exchange for access to political candidates—are describing events held by JFCs.

Prior to 2014, an individual donor could give no more than $74,600 to all political party committees in each election cycle. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission found this “aggregate limit” to be unconstitutional, raising the combined total a donor could give to political parties to $1.2 million. Less than eight months later, Congress inserted a provision into an end-of-year budget deal that more than doubled this amount, allowing one donor to give a combined $2.5 million to the state and national arms of one political party through a variety of special-purpose accounts.

Currently, most of the money that goes into these party accounts must be spent at arm’s length from the candidate. After all, the candidate can only accept $5,400—the rest is not the candidate’s money to spend. The party cannot turn around and give this money to the candidate or spend it “in cooperation, consultation or concert, with, or at the request or suggestion of [the] candidate.”

The new bill would wipe out this language and replace it with language that prohibits the party from making only communications “controlled by, or made at the direction of, the candidate.” Once passed, the bill would allow candidates to undermine contribution limits in three steps:

  • Establish a joint fundraising committee with a political party.
  • Hold joint fundraisers asking for six-figure contributions—the vast majority of which would go to the political party.
  • Provide the political party with information about how it should spend the money on the candidate’s behalf—as long as the candidate does not “control” or “direct” the making of communications.

Almost all Americans—96 percent, to be exact—think that money is at least partly to blame for political dysfunction. Members of Congress should take note. Instead of opening another avenue for wealthy donors to influence political leaders, lawmakers should be taking steps to fight political corruption. The Center for American Progress has proposed common-sense solutions that would put American democracy on a better path: prohibiting lobbyist fundraising; banning contributions to members of Congress from the industries they oversee in committee; and enhancing public disclosure, to name just a few. By taking such steps, Congress can help ensure that political decisions are responsive to the public as a whole—not only to those who can afford to write a six-figure check.

Alex Tausanovitch is the associate director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress.