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Campaign-Finance Provisions May Be Attached To Spending Bill


Congress has days remaining to approve a measure to keep the government open. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell would like to add in a little something. It's a change to campaign finance law. It would make it easier for national political parties to raise money to help get their candidates elected. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Two facts about Congress, just about everybody in office is afraid of millionaire-financed super PACs, and almost every lawmaker belongs to either the Republican or Democratic Party. But the party committees, like the candidates themselves, are bound by contribution limits intended to prevent corruption. Super PACs don't have contribution limits. So, Sen. McConnell wants to do away with the cap on how much money a party committee can spend to support a candidate. Jason Torchinsky is a campaign finance lawyer who favors deregulation of political money.

JASON TORCHINSKY: This will help restore the balance between super PACs, which can spend unlimited money without coordinating with the candidates, and the party committees that are really handcuffed in how much they can coordinate with their candidates.

OVERBY: Torchinsky says the political parties are a positive force for civil discourse, unlike the super PACs, which might be run by wealthy donors with a specific agenda.

TORCHINSKY: This change would help make a party contribution a really worthy thing to do again, which would increase spending through political parties, which I think will help center the political system more than what we have right now.

OVERBY: But advocates of stronger regulation see McConnell's move as just another small step in dismantling the campaign finance laws, just like last December when Congress quietly tripled the amount that donors can give to the parties. Paul S. Ryan is with the Campaign Legal Center. He says the dismantling is a project both parties are engaged in, that while Democrats talk up campaign finance reform while they're running for office...

PAUL S. RYAN: Behind the scenes, Democratic lawyers are working hand-in-hand with Republican lawyers to dismantle some of these campaign finance laws.

OVERBY: Progressive groups are mobilizing to keep the McConnell provision out of the bill. Lisa Gilbert of the watchdog group Public Citizen says Congress shouldn't legislate this way.

LISA GILBERT: It just means that, you know, we don't have to pay attention to whether things have bipartisan support, but instead, you know, last minute, when we know we want to keep the lights on for the government, you know, things that make our system weaker can sneak through.

OVERBY: And these are hardly the only special provisions or riders getting tucked into the big budget bill. Many of the riders would block Obama administration initiatives on the environment, consumer protection and health care. House Republicans have riders to prevent new rules for politically active tax-exempt groups and a block disclosure of corporate political spending. They also want to make sure President Obama doesn't require disclosure of political contributions by federal contractors. But there's one other campaign finance rider worth mentioning, and it goes the other direction. Mitch McConnell wants senators to start filing their campaign finance reports online. This would mean no more reports of several thousand pages each, no more tax dollars wasted on data entry or document scanning, no more delays in campaign disclosure. Then again, the provision might get knocked out of the bill as it did last year when a Democrat was pushing it. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.