The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A last-minute battle over big money in politics

The emerging deal to fund the government for a year is now at risk of collapsing, making a government shutdown more likely, in part because of a measure tucked into the bill that would allow rich donors to shovel up to nearly 10 times as much in campaign cash into the coffers of party committees.

In a little detail that doesn’t reflect particularly well on Congress, no one knows how this measure got into the bill.

But, really, there’s no mystery here: The party committees — Democratic ones included — will tacitly support this measure, without saying so out loud, because it will, you know, allow them to raise a lot more money.

The dust-up has created a revolt on the left that could scuttle the deal. Nancy Pelosi has come out against the package, demanding that the campaign finance proposal — and another one that would weaken Wall Street regulations, which Elizabeth Warren is sharply criticizing today — be pulled from the measure. If that doesn’t happen, very few Democrats will vote for it — which in turn means Republicans might not be able to pass it, because of conservative defections over the fact that it doesn’t do enough to fight Obama’s action on deportations.

Republicans are refusing to remove the two measures, and they have laid down a threat: If Democrats balk, they will simply pass a three or four month stopgap spending measure funding the government, deferring the big shutdown fight until early next year. There are no signs Dems will be cowed by this threat.

To greatly oversimplify, the campaign finance measure in question would create a range of more donation options to parties, with the effect of raising the cap on the amount individual donors can give to three major committees of one party — say, the DNC, the DSCC and the DCCC — from around $97,000 to as much as $777,000. (More detail here.)

Campaign finance experts are tearing into the measure, arguing that it will further erode what’s left of protections against the influence of big money over politics.

So where did this proposal come from? Mitch McConnell’s office has said he is not behind it. On the Democratic side, Nancy Pelosi told reporters today that her office was only belatedly informed of the measure.

Meanwhile, a senior House Dem aide tells me that Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was overheard this morning loudly complaining that she had not been consulted about this provision, and that she was left out of the loop. But the DNC is not saying whether it supports or opposes the provision. And there’s been no comment from the DSCC or the DCCC.

But, look, it isn’t hard to see why the party committees might tacitly support this. After all, Democrats regularly say that the outside groups on the right out-raise and outspend the outside groups on the left. And the Democratic party committees regularly match or outperform Republican party committees in fundraising. Therefore, Democratic party committees will likely see it as being in their interest overall if they can shift the center of fundraising gravity towards the committees, and away from outside groups.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the big picture.  While some good government types think it would be a positive outcome if the parties are strengthened relative to outside groups — which this would do — on balance this proposal would move us further and further away from the outcome advocates want: A move towards lots and lots of smaller donations, and away from bigger ones. Advocates point out that this will only escalate the arms race for big donations, further empowering wealthy donors and maximizing their influence — while rendering smaller donations less and less relevant.

So, whatever the party committees want, a number of Democratic elected officials will oppose the funding bill. Which may mean we’re going to have to go through all of this again next year.