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Bloomberg: House Bill Would Ax Election Panel, Bar Limits on Money in Politics

This article originally appeared in Bloomberg BNA.

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Republicans in Congress are supporting provisions in a new House spending bill that would eliminate the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), restrict the Internal Revenue Service from limiting political activities of tax-exempt organizations and churches, and bar the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring disclosure of corporate political spending.

Elimination of the EAC, a small agency headed by a bipartisan group of commissioners advising state and local election officials, has long been advocated by some Republican lawmakers. The latest push, however, comes shortly after the Trump administration created a new advisory commission focused on alleged voter fraud. The new panel, which is set to hold its first meeting July 19, is dominated by Republicans and seen by critics as pushing a partisan agenda.

EAC elimination and several other provisions of the newly drafted Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill are ideas Republican lawmakers have pushed for years. Longstanding Republican policy positions have prevented the IRS from writing new rules to define the political activities of tax-exempt nonprofit groups and barred the SEC from imposing new disclosure rules for corporate political money. But, the latest appropriations bill has some new wrinkles.

One new item in the appropriations bill would add specific restrictions on the ability of the IRS to curb political activity by churches. Any IRS action to enforce the longstanding legal prohibition against a church or other religious institution spending money to influence elections would have to be reviewed by the IRS commissioner and reported to congressional tax-writing committees.

Another new provision of the bill would bar the Federal Election Commission from enforcing a campaign finance law that limits solicitation of contributions to political action committees run by trade associations.

Bill Advances

The appropriations bill was advanced in a House Appropriations subcommittee markup on June 29. The measure would provide a total of $20.2 billion in fiscal 2018 funding for Treasury Department, the judiciary, the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and several smaller agencies, including the EAC and the FEC.

The new campaign finance provision in the bill would prevent the FEC from spending any money to enforce a longstanding legal requirement that a trade association make a written request to each member corporation for permission to solicit PAC contributions from the company’s executives and others eligible to give to a PAC. A freestanding bill to eliminate this prior-approval requirement has been pushed by several major associations, including the Associated General Contractors of America.

Current law requires that a trade association make a written request to member corporations for permission to solicit their “restricted class” of executives, managers and others eligible to make PAC contributions. The current law also says that corporations belonging to multiple trade associations may only grant approval to solicit contributions to one trade association PAC per calendar year. This provision has limited the ability of some associations to cast a wide net to collect PAC contributions.

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this year, Jeffrey D. Shoaf, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of America, complained that trade associations “are discriminated against because their PACs are the only political committees that must first obtain exclusive permission from member companies before soliciting eligible individuals for support.” Shoaf said no other class of PAC, including corporate, labor union, and individual membership associations, is subject to the prior-approval requirement.

Groups Criticize House Bill’s Riders

Critics said the new appropriations bill would loosen needed restrictions on money in politics and that it inappropriately tacked on legislative riders to a funding measure.

“The draft financial services appropriations bill goes far beyond the definition of a government funding bill,” said a statement from Lisa Gilbert, vice president for legislative affairs of the liberal nonprofit Public Citizen. “Substantively, it’s also a right-wing wish list packed with congressional power grabs, special favors for ideologues and paybacks to corporate donors that have no place in legislation to fund our government.”

The League of Women Voters singled out elimination of the EAC as the most problematic rider in the new bill and called on the Appropriations Committee not to approve the provision.

League of Women Voters President Chris Carson said in a statement: “With continuing controversy about the accuracy, conduct and participation in American elections, this is not the time to abolish the only federal entity devoted exclusively to improving election administration on a bipartisan basis. Though it receives little attention, the EAC does invaluable work to improve our nation’s election systems.”