Another must-pass omnibus spending bill, another Mitch McConnell rider to strengthen political parties financially.
Last year around this time, the Senate majority leader inserted a provision to dramatically increase the amount of money that individual contributors could give to political parties.
This year, he's pushing a provision make it easier for parties to spend more money in coordination with candidates.
McConnell's motivation is pretty straightforward: He and his fellow Republican insiders want more control. In the new Wild West of campaign spending, he's worried that limits on party fundraising and spending are putting parties at a disadvantage vis-a-vis other groups, especially the vast Koch-funded and allied networks that are increasingly at odds with McConnell and his fellow Republican leaders.
The obvious and most important critique is that this provision further increases the parties' reliance on very large donors by essentially rebuilding the old soft-money system that raised so many corruption concerns that it was outlawed in 2002 with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — which McConnell immediately challenged in the Supreme Court (and lost).
In short, if parties can raise and spend huge sums of money, they're going to mostly raise that money from superrich donors, who will become even more influential.
There's also the critique that using the budget process is a particularly sneaky way to make these kinds of changes, which the Brennan Center's Daniel Weiner and Ian Vandewalker make here (in addition to raising corruption concerns). For all of the claims that at least the parties are more transparent than some of the 501(c)(4) "dark money" groups that are inhabiting the campaign world these days, this is not exactly the most transparent way to make policy.
Some will support McConnell and argue that the reality is we're in an age of big money — and better the money flow through the parties, as at least they are motivated to win elections, which potentially serves as a moderating force. I disagree pretty strongly on this point, and I explained why in a recent post here on Polyarchy.
The debate over controls the money within the Republican Party is a significant one, and it's been brought into sharper relief by McConnell's provision, which the House Freedom Caucus opposes.
As HFC founding member Rep. Mick Mulvaney told National Journal: "It effectively empowers the establishment wing of both parties. And that's one of the reasons I think you'll see some kickback from the Freedom Caucus."
HFC members see themselves as outsiders from the establishment apparatus, and want to keep things that way. They worry that they could be either forced into line or forced out by the party establishment. And possibly they would.
But those who want more moderation and compromise in Congress should actually side with the House Freedom Caucus on this.
It may not be immediately obvious, but think about it for a second. Consider the politics of recent budget deals. If former House Speaker John Boehner could have held his party together, he would have been in a stronger negotiating position and would have been able to push for bigger cuts. But because he ultimately needed Democrats to pass something and not preside over a total breakdown of government, he was more limited in what he could ask for. Because he had to deal with the HFC, he had to negotiate with Dems.
Of course, Boehner was forced out eventually. But in time, current Speaker Paul Ryan will face the same problem, and the cycle will continue. As long as the far right is unreasonable, Republican leadership will have to work with Democrats to pass something. Perhaps at some point, the House may even have a speaker elected with bipartisan support.
It's important to remember that McConnell and Ryan are both very conservative. They are not moderates. And presumably, if they had more power over campaign money flows, they'd want more members like them: conservative but reliably loyal to the leadership, not outsider insurgent conservatives. This would enable the Republicans to be more effective in passing their conservative agenda. This is not a recipe for moderate politics.
In all likelihood, this McConnell provision will become law. Parties will become even more powerful. And then we will be able to test the proposition that empowering parties will somehow prove a moderating force and finally solve the dysfunction that is roiling Washington. Count me as highly skeptical.