The Good, but Mostly Bad, in Congress’ Big Budget Deal

Posted by Jay Riestenberg on December 16, 2015


We send senators and representatives to Washington to do serious business, but at about this time every year, they can’t resist a bit of mischief.

So it was no surprise last night to see congressional leaders announce a 2,000 page omnibus budget, larded with special interest handouts (called “riders”) that push more secret money into our elections and perpetuate media ownership rules that are gradually strangling local broadcast news coverage.

In fairness, the bill has a couple of good things:

(1) Despite a major push from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, riders that would have demolished limits on coordination between political parties and candidates were not included in the bill. Also not included were threats to the presidential public financing system and a rider that would have blocked a potential executive order from President Obama requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending.

(2) Although some Republicans and big telecom lobbyists were hoping to undermine the Federal Communications Commission’s historic ruling this spring on net neutrality, there are no riders that block the new Open Internet rules.

Now the bad things:

The omnibus bill includes two provisions that allow more secret money in our elections.

(1)  Despite strong popular support for changes in Internal Revenue Service regulations that now allow nonprofit “social welfare” organizations to influence elections without first disclosing their campaign-related donors, the budget bill blocks the IRS from moving forward on writing new rules. There is a clear consensus among most experts - including the Treasury Department’s Inspector General that investigated the IRS - that new rules are necessary.  The IRS has been working to deliver a new proposal this year that would create bright lines so everyone understands and plays by the same set of rules. The lack of bright lines makes it harder for nonprofits to comply with the law as it shields donors from disclosure.

(2) Despite huge bipartisan support for increased disclosure of political spending, another rider prohibits the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending. That means corporate management will be able to spend shareholder funds on politics without telling the shareholders, or the FEC or SEC, how much and where that money was spent. This undermines free and fair markets and incentivizes a pay-to-pay politics that is at the root of corruption in government today.

(3) Like last year’s CROmnibus deal, this year’s budget deal includes specific language blocking the use of federal funds to push for voting rights for citizens of Washington, D.C.

(4) The budget bill also includes a grandfather clause that lets broadcasters off the hook from complying with a Federal Communications Commission order aimed at reducing local media monopolization.

Americans deserve a clean budget that is passed through normal procedures, not in the dark of night laden with favors for wealthy special interests. Both parties have failed the American people when they’ve been in the majority, and the constant threat of government shutdowns followed by last minute omnibus spending bills have undermined people’s faith in Congress.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

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