The Democratic National Committee has rolled back restrictions introduced by presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 that banned donations from federal lobbyists and political action committees.
The decision was viewed with disappointment Friday morning by good government activists who saw it as a step backward in the effort to limit special interest influence in Washington. Some suggested it could provide an advantage to Hillary Clinton’s fundraising efforts.
“It is a major step in the wrong direction,” said longtime reform advocate Fred Wertheimer. “And it is completely out of touch with the clear public rejection of the role of political money in Washington,” expressed during the 2016 campaign.
The change in the rules, already apparent to leading Washington lobbyists, was quietly introduced at some point during the past couple of months.
The ban was a symbolic way for Obama to put his stamp on the party in 2008 when he promised voters “we are going to change how Washington works.”
At the time, lobbyists and corporate advocates in Washington complained about the ban and other limitations imposed by the new administration. The only portion of the old rules now remaining in place is that lobbyists and PAC representatives will still not be able to attend events that feature Obama, Vice President Biden or their spouses, according to Mark Paustenbach, deputy communications director for the DNC.
“The DNC’s recent change in guidelines will ensure that we continue to have the resources and infrastructure in place to best support whoever emerges as our eventual nominee,” Paustenbach said in an email. “Electing a Democrat to the White House is vital to building on the progress we’ve made over the last seven years, which has resulted in a record 71 straight months of private-sector job growth and nearly 14 million new jobs.”
Last summer the DNC announced it was lifting a ban on lobbyist contributions to convention-related expenses. At the time, DNC officials said the move was necessary because Congress had eliminated about $20 million in federal funding for the quadrennial party gatherings.
The DNC’s recent, more sweeping reversal of the previous ban on donations from lobbyists and political action committees was confirmed by three Democratic lobbyists who said they have already received solicitations from the committee. The lobbyists requested anonymity to speak freely about the committee’s decision, which has been otherwise kept quiet.
For the most part, they said, the DNC has returned to business as usual, pre-2008. The DNC has even named a finance director specifically for PAC donations who has recently emailed prospective donors to let them know that they can now contribute again, according to an email that was reviewed by The Washington Post.
The decision could further inflame tensions between the DNC and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has railed against the influence of lobbyists, particularly those representing Wall Street.
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has set up a joint fundraising committee with the DNC called the Hillary Victory Fund, which raised $26.9 million through the end of 2015. Sanders has set up a similar joint fundraising committee but Federal Election Commission records show it has not been active, raising a total of just $1,000.
The new Clinton Fund collects money from large donors that is then distributed between Clinton’s campaign and 33 state Democratic Party committees. In recent months, a Clinton solicitation asked supporters to give up to $366,100 to the fund. Her campaign then received $2,700 of the total for the primary period, while the rest went to the DNC and 33 state party committees. Federal Election Commission records show that through the end of the year, 56 donors had written checks of $100,000 or more to the Hillary Victory Fund. Most of the contributions came from individuals, but a handful came from corporations or labor unions.
Reformers complain that the new rules have already changed Washington ethics. They provide opportunities for “influence-buying by Washington lobbyists with six-figure contributions to the Hillary Victory Fund,” said Wertheimer, suggesting that lobbyists could also face “political extortion” from those raising the money.
Wertheimer called on Obama Friday to reverse the recent DNC decision to change the rules. However, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said a new set of party leaders will have to make such decisions.
“The guidelines that were previously in place at the DNC were guidelines that were instituted when Barack Obama, then Senator Obama, became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States,” Schultz said. “Those were guidelines that were modeled after his campaign for the presidency.” He added: “We’re now at the point where the fundraising for the DNC is going toward candidates who are on the ballot in 2016. Those candidates will have to make choices about the resources they are using.”
Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin emphasized the grass-roots nature of Clinton’s campaign and the candidate’s commitment to reform. In an emailed statement he said Friday that the Clinton campaign “is driven by the 750,000 people across the country who have contributed, mostly with low dollar donations. Hillary Clinton has fought for campaign finance reform her entire career and, as President, will make it a priority to overturn Citizens United and restore the role of everyday voters in elections.”
Sanders has made his small-dollar-infused campaign a hallmark of his stump speech, boasting that he is the candidate of the little guy, to the point where supporters in Iowa could finish the portion of his stump speech in which he crowed that the average donation was $27.
In recent months Sanders’s supporters have accused the DNC of trying to prevent more primary debates, trying to tilt the race in Clinton’s direction. Just this week, his backers were enraged that the DNC allowed the senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus to use the committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters to announce that their PAC had endorsed Clinton over Sanders. DNC officials have said they had no involvement in the black caucus event. As dues paying members, the caucus can reserve shared meeting space at the DNC.
Some Sanders backers have also expressed concern that the DNC is not playing a more vigorous role in checking out disputes over voting in the recent Iowa caucuses, which Clinton narrowly won. The DNC has declined to comment on this in the past.
David Nakamura and Anu Narayanswamy contributed to this article.