WASHINGTON -- Facing a tough election landscape this year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had to go deep in the red, ending the electoral cycle with roughly $20 million of debt. But not all that money has to be paid off now. And a rider on the omnibus spending bill for 2015 -- a rider otherwise deplored by many Democrats -- could mean help is on the way.
About $5.2 million of the DSCC's debt wasn’t spent to sponsor more advertising or get out the vote. Rather, it went to purchase a new building to house the committee's activities in the future.
Tucked into the final pages of the 1,600-page omnibus legislation is a provision dramatically raising the cap on donations that people can make to national party committees for three specific functions: to help fund presidential conventions, to recount votes and, curiously, to cover the cost of buildings.
The DSCC adamantly denies that it is responsible for the provision, as do other Democrats not associated with the committee.
"The DSCC was not involved with this," said committee spokesman Justin Barasky. He added that the committee's monthly mortgage payment on the new building is about the same as the rent on its previous location and that the DSCC took out the loan back in June.
The rush of condemnation over the campaign finance rider has been fierce, sparking an intense round of speculation over who is to blame or, if you're a dedicated opponent of campaign finance restrictions, credit. The Republican National Committee and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been fingered as the chief culprits by The Washington Post. Boehner told reporters at a press conference Wednesday that the provision was crafted by members of both parties in response to the elimination of public financing for presidential conventions as an offset to fund cancer research.
“This provision was worked out in a bipartisan way to allow those who are organizing political conventions to raise the money from private sources as opposed to using taxpayer funds,” Boehner said.
While Republicans are at least willing to discuss the measure, Democrats are all but sprinting from it. Aides on the Hill said that the proposal did, indeed, come during negotiations between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, who tapped election lawyer Marc Elias to handle the discussions. But it was initially presented as a "small increase in the caps for the convention," according to one lawmaker.
That was "something we could have lived with," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely about the drafting of the must-pass bill. But when the bill's final language came out, "it became not just a small increase in the caps for conventions but a large increase in caps for many other things."
"It was not just a surprise but a shock to House Democratic leaders," said the lawmaker.
Just how big of a shock? Two sources told The Huffington Post on Thursday that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Democratic National Committee -- one of the institutions that would chiefly benefit from the measure -- had no idea that the rider had been included until the omnibus bill was published.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) now lists the dramatic increase in contribution limits as a reason that she cannot support the overall bill. Rank-and-file Democrats are also pointing to the provision as the reason for a no vote.
Current limits allow a donor to give $32,400 per year to the Republican or Democratic National Committee’s general election fund and another $32,400 to its recount fund. The rider would set the limit for the recount fund and two new funds, for presidential conventions and buildings, at $97,200 per donor per year. Similar cap increases apply to the recount and building funds at the parties' House and Senate committees.
Altogether, under the omnibus rider, a single wealthy donor could give more than $1 million to national party committees during a two-year election cycle.
The provision has been excoriated by campaign finance reform supporters.
“These huge contributions will create the opportunity for the wealthiest Americans to buy and federal officeholders to sell government decisions,” Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said in a statement. “The provisions return our nation to the auction block in the same way that existed at the time of the Watergate scandals in the 1970s and the 'soft money' scandals in the 1990s.”
And yet, not everyone is completely upset about the idea of going back to the old regime.
“While the process stinks, raising party limits will move hundreds of millions of dollars from unaccountable, dark organizations to transparent, accountable ones," said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the Democratic interest group NDN. "As a general rule, the more money and speech that is in the hands of those most accountable to voters, the better it is for democracy. This will make an already bad system a bit better and more accountable."