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Campaign Finance Riders Face Fight In Year-End Spending Bill

By Kate Ackley, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Progressive and political money groups say they will intensify their lobbying in the coming days to prevent four campaign finance measures from hitching a ride on a year-end spending deal.

With a deadline to reach agreement on government-wide funding less than two weeks away, the effort will be no easy pitch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., authored one of the measures, which would relax limits on coordination between political parties and candidates.

“They’re swimming upstream every step of the way,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University professor who specializes in campaign and election issues. “Legislators are going to be hard-pressed to vote against an appropriation bill that’s otherwise appealing to them on the basis of some of these riders.”

Opponents of the measures argue they would decrease transparency and would make it easier for “soft money” to flow to the political parties. McConnell and other backers of rolling back limits on party-candidate coordination say it would help political parties compete in the campaign funding scene increasingly dominated by super PACs that can raise unlimited funds.

McConnell’s measure was added to the fiscal 2016 Financial Services Appropriations bill, while the three other items were included in the House’s version.

The provisions in the House bill would prevent the White House from requiring campaign finance disclosures by government contractors and put the brakes on a Securities and Exchange Commission effort to require public corporations to disclose their campaign finance activities. Finally, a third provision would make sure the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t issue new regulations aimed at defining political activity for nonprofit groups.

“Republicans do not want a shutdown, so there’s space to push to keep a lot of these things off,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said the panel wouldn’t comment or speculate on funding levels “or policy provisions that may or may not be included in future legislation.” Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said he didn’t have guidance on his boss’ campaign finance rider.

Public Citizen also is working through a broader coalition to keep all riders — not just those dealing with campaign finance — off the funding package, Gilbert said.

When it comes to the campaign finance issues, she said, her coalition is looking to the White House and congressional Democrats to “be strong.” But the groups are uncertain of their chance for success.

“This is McConnell’s favorite issue,” she said. “There is the fear that things that are quote-unquote considered small will slip through.”

Public Citizen and several other groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21 and the League of Women Voters, pressed their case in a letter to lawmakers.

“Secret money in our elections provides widespread opportunities for government corruption and prevents holding public officials and influence-buying donors accountable for corrupt practices,” the letter said.

“Our organizations strongly urge you to oppose the four damaging campaign finance riders contained in pending appropriations bills and to oppose any new rider that may be offered that would weaken or undermine the campaign finance laws,” the letter added.

The organizations are especially wary since last year’s budget deal included a rider boosting the contribution limits to political parties.

Rick Hasen, a political law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said the latest McConnell provision could revive much of the “soft money” that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul sought to rein in.

“Political parties have been hobbled by super PACs,” Hasen said. But the McConnell rider would “raise the specter of people getting their influence and access through political parties.”

Hasen said Democrats are unlikely to block the riders or get help from President Barack Obama, who has warned Republicans about “ideological” fights over policy issues in omnibus legislation.

“Democrats talk the talk of wanting strong campaign finance laws, but many Democratic lawyers are working behind the scenes to loosen them,” Hasen said. “I wouldn’t count on Obama to use his power to block those measures.”

But Senate Democrats may push back harder than anticipated.

“Democrats have said we are against all poison pill riders including these ones and we mean it,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. “They need our votes and we have said no poison pill riders.”

©2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) adjusts his glasses while taking questions on the upcoming budget battle  on Capitol Hill in Washington September 29, 2015.   REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Clinton Controversy Highlights Gaps In Email Rules For Congress

By Kate Ackley, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Despite gripes on Capitol Hill that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email practices may deprive the public of important insight into her tenure at the State Department, Congress has subjected itself to a hodgepodge of electronic data protocols, with much left to the whims of lawmakers.

Responding to reports that Clinton used a personal email server, instead of a government account, to conduct business as secretary of State, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner last week blasted the actions as part of the administration’s pattern of blocking transparency.

But the legislative branch, which has effectively exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act, can keep its emails and other correspondence hidden for 20 years or more — and some forever.

“The best thing that may come out of this Hillary situation is that the House and Senate have to take a good hard look at their own procedures,” said a former historian of the House Ray Smock, who is now director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. “This is a big problem, and Congress has only had an occasional, piecemeal approach.”

All emails and paperwork generated in a lawmaker’s personal office remain that member’s private property, according to Smock and other experts. And it is up to them whether they wish to make their records public and, if so, what restrictions they choose to place on them.

If Byrd had wanted, all of his personal office emails and other records could have vanished. Smock said Byrd choose to preserve his files, which are now available at the school’s library.

The emails and other records of congressional committees are preserved at the National Archives’ Center for Legislative Archives, although Congress determines which records are deemed official and maintains ownership of the documents.

Congressional committees have the authority to omit or further delay disclosure of certain emails and other records from public view if they contain private, classified or national security information. Records that pertain to congressional investigations can be closed for up to 50 years.

Officials with the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate did not respond to requests for information about guidelines for committee emails from lawmakers and their aides, including any protocols for using official or personal email accounts. The House Administration Committee also did not respond to requests for comment.

There are some clear prohibitions on lawmakers’ use of their official email: They must never use their government email accounts to solicit campaign money or even most charitable contributions.

“I think lawmakers have the opposite problem [from Hillary Clinton],” said Ken Gross, a political law partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. “They have to be more mindful of what they can’t use their official email for.”

The House and Senate approved a resolution in 2008 stating that lawmakers should “properly” maintain their papers, adding that each member of Congress “should take all necessary measures to manage and preserve the Member’s own Congressional papers” and to make them available for “educational purposes at a time the Member considers appropriate.” But the resolution does not compel them to do so.

Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie said his office helps senators find a place, typically a university library, to house their records.

Some senators have printed out their email collections, Ritchie said, though others, such as former Senator Scott P. Brown (R-MA), keep them in electronic form. “Scott Brown took his entire collection under his arm in his hard drive,” Ritchie said.

Reading and searching old emails can become difficult as technology becomes obsolete. Smock said the Byrd archives spent $10,000 recently to clean up the hard drive of the late senator’s electronic correspondence.

Historians and government disclosure groups say they want more consistency in congressional preservation of emails and other records.

“It’s a labyrinth,” said Frank Mackaman, president of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. “Our approach in dealing with donors is to try to get the fewest restrictions on the use of the material, but every case is an individual negotiation.”

Archives opens most Senate committee records after 20 years, while most House committee records stay closed for 30 years.

“Our total holdings of electronic records from the legislative branch is over 56 terabytes of data,” said Richard Hunt, who runs the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives.

Most emails are still closed to the public because the technology has only been used for the past two to three decades. Still, Hunt said, such records hold enormous value to historians or anyone interested in how Congress operates.

“They really show how our government works, or not,” he said. “The files are pretty rich. There are some hidden gems in the collections.”

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr