Congress has officially approved the latest omnibus budget deal, which President Obama has now signed into law. The bill was essentially guaranteed to pass, because anything less would have caused the government to shut down. Again.
In what’s become something of a sick annual tradition, members of Congress attached a multitude of riders to this must-pass piece of legislation in an attempt to sneak through deeply unpopular things they could never justify introducing or voting for on their own.
The text of the 2,000 page bill was quietly made available to the public in the middle of the night on Tuesday — just a few days before it was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law. So, what was Congress trying to hide? Here are five of the most egregious things we found.
The part that allows for more secret (and possibly foreign) political money
A provision buried on page 472 prohibits the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from taking any action to reign in the political activity of 501(c)4 organizations. These organizations, which enjoy significant tax exemptions as nonprofits, weren’t originally supposed to engage in political activity at all. In recent years, however, they’ve become a favorite of anyone who wants to buy political influence without attracting attention.
Everyone from Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to the Harry Reid-aligned Patriot Majority USA has taken advantage of the lax rules governing 501(c)4s. Since there’s no legal requirement that 501(c)4 organizations disclose their donors, anyone can use them as a vehicle to pour unlimited money into our political system. And we mean anyone. As former Republican Federal Election Commissioner Trevor Potter has pointed out, even foreign nationals and governments could use 501(c)4s to quietly influence U.S. policy.
Let that sink in folks: Rather than allow the IRS to prevent the abuse of tax-exempt nonprofit status for purely political purposes (by both parties!), Congress has specifically banned the agency from taking any kind of action — even at the risk of allowing secret foreign money to poison our elections.
The part that helps corporations hide political activity from their own shareholders
On a similar note, another provision tucked away on page 1,982 prohibits the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from requiring corporations to disclose their political spending.
This is especially outrageous because disclosure is, at least on paper, one of the least controversial and most basic steps toward reform the government can take. We’re not talking about cutting off the flow of money here — just letting the public see who’s spending it, and what they’re spending it on. As noted by the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik, even the Supreme Court made a point of emphasizing the need for disclosure in its widely reviled Citizens United ruling:
“With the advent of the Internet,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.” Disclosure would enable shareholders to “determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.”
All that said, Obama’s SEC seemed completely unwilling to implement such a rule anyway. Despite the fact that a petition calling for a new disclosure rule drew 1.2 million public comments — the most in SEC history — SEC chairwoman, Obama appointee, and former Wall St. lawyer Mary Jo White has consistently refused to take any kind of action on the matter.
The part Harry Reid giftwrapped for a private equity CEO
In one of the more straightforward cases of influence peddling we’ve ever seen, Harry Reid reportedly solicited contributions for his Super PAC — which, by law, he’s supposed to have nothing to do with — during a May 2013 meeting with private equity CEO David Bonderman.
Bonderman quickly picked up on Reid’s not-so-subtle hints. Bonderman, his wife, and firms under his control contributed well over $1 million to Reid’s Senate Majority PAC in 2014. In what we’re sure is a completely unrelated coincidence, Reid pushed to insert two pieces of language that would directly benefit Bonderman’s businesses into the 2015 omnibus. What else is there to say?
The part copy-pasted from CISA — a highly controversial government surveillance bill
Civil libertarians and privacy advocates received a nasty shock when it was discovered that the full text of Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) was added 1,729 pages into the budget deal. Pushed as a “cybersecurity” measure, CISA actively encourages companies to quietly share data they’ve accumulated on consumers with numerous government agencies.
While the bill has been lambasted by privacy advocates and major tech companies like Apple, Google, Twitter, and Wikipedia, it does have the blessing of numerous industries that spend big to buy political influence — The Telecommunications Industry Association, the Financial Services Roundtable, and Retail Industry Leaders Association have all applauded its passage.
The part that extends most of the terrible things added to last year’s omnibus
Nearly all of the riders attached to the 2014 “cromnibus” budget agreement were re-upped in the 2015 version. As the Rep.Us Bulletin reported last year, the 2014 omnibus agreement included everything from nullification of voter-backed marijuana legalization in Washington, DC, to $479 million for war planes the Pentagon didn’t ask for, to a rollback of restrictions on risky derivatives trading that was quite literally written by lobbyists for CitiGroup.
It’s hard to find many good things to say about Congress after legislation like this, but hey — at least they’re consistent. And as long as monied interests are allowed to effectively control government policy, you can definitely expect that consistency to continue.