THE BLOG
12/19/2014 09:36 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

No Transparency Where It Is Needed Most

Nate Allen/500px

The campaign finance deregulation policy rider to the spending legislation signed by the president is a final recognition by politicians of both parties that nothing will be done to prevent or even slow down the seemingly unstoppable march toward even more money in American politics.

The policy rider lifts the current cap of $32,400 on donations from individuals to political party committees up to $777,600 per year. That means that in each two-year election cycle individuals could give more than $1.5 million and married couples could give twice that. The money is ostensibly limited to legal fees and party conventions but anyone who has taken economics knows that money is fungible and that loose interpretations of what little campaign finance regulation remains will not impede the scope of how this extra money will actually be spent.

There is a tactical logic behind this amendment springing from a legitimate desire for political parties to be competitive. Political party resources have been outstripped by super PACs since the Citizens United ruling opened the flood of "dark money" campaign expenditures. This campaign deregulation effort now resembles the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union with each side trying to remove all the barriers and rules preventing them from raising effectively unlimited contributions. The political parties wanted this amendment to fight fire with fire, but the result just further increases the importance of high net worth donors and further marginalizes most of the voters in the political system. Where will this end?

The substance of this amendment is enormously problematic but so was the process by which it was adopted. When I was in Congress I appreciated and understood the value of compromise on legislative initiatives. Getting the final spending bill to the president's desk required some policy riders that brought a majority coalition together in favor of the bill but also divided some lawmakers depending on their views. Examples are the repeal of a provision in Dodd-Frank and congressional intervention in DC's effort to legalize marijuana. Despite some disagreement over these amendments the bill funds the government at reasonable levels for the rest of the fiscal year and delays most fights about spending from upending other important work before Congress. These types of disagreements are a natural outcome of compromise legislation. A bipartisan majority of legislators supported the bill, overcoming objections to specific policy provisions from the right and the left.

Here is the difference: Most legislators took ownership over the policy riders they wanted inserted into the legislation. Supporters of those policy provisions went down to the floor and proclaimed their importance. The campaign finance amendment was an orphan, and that is telling. Only later did it come out in the press that it was airmailed into the bill after less than public negotiations between a bipartisan group of congressional leaders.

A recent Pew study shows that just 22 percent of Americans express a favorable opinion of Congress and this number holds roughly steady across the partisan divide. Amendments that open up the political system to even more money are a key element why Congress is held in such low esteem by Democrats, Republicans and independents. I don't fault the tactics of trying to even the playing field between political party fundraising and super PACs, but that such a tactic is necessary speaks to the most urgent problem for American government which is the eroding trust of the people it is supposed to serve. Americans believe their government is bought and paid for by wealthy donors; a lawmaker supporting this amendment wouldn't be able to convince any of the large number of voters who believe in this principle that this tactical move is going to make government work better for 99 percent of Americans. Congress ought to debate changes in campaign finance regulation out in the open and give voters the chance to tell their congressional leaders what they think about these issues.

At a minimum the public desperately needs an open, constructive discussion about the role of money in politics. It is too bad that Congress approved this language with none of the public input and with no transparency whatsoever. Legitimate differences of opinion exist on how best, if at all, to change the relationship between money and public policy but our democracy thrives only when those judgments are made openly and publicly.