WASHINGTON - Maryland Rep. Albert R. Wynn is bucking his party's leadership with campaign-finance legislation that would sharply boost the overall amount that individuals could give in political contributions.
Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, is a primary author of the bill, which would increase the overall amount an individual could donate in each election - to as much as $1 million or more, from the current limit of $101,400. A committee in the Republican-controlled House approved the measure yesterday on a party-line vote.
Those who support shrinking the influence of big money in politics, and many Democrats, say the legislation would reverse progress made in recent decades. But Wynn thinks his party has been wrong on the issue and that the proposal is needed to level the playing field. Independent groups that aren't subject to limits on individual donations, he said, have skewed the process away from grass-roots efforts by the political parties.
"Last time, leadership said that if we passed [campaign reform], we'd be in the majority," Wynn said. "Funny, it doesn't feel like the majority. It has not helped Democrats be perceived as reformers [or] made us successful."
The measure, whose co-author is Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, would leave unchanged federal limits on donations to candidates, parties or political action committees. For example, a person can give no more than $2,100, per election, to a candidate for Congress or president.
But the measure would lift the overall limit on the total that a person can contribute in a two-year election cycle: currently, $101,400, of which no more than $40,000 can go to candidates, with the rest to party committees or PACs.
That means a donor could give a total of $1 million, or more, to party organizations and committees, depending on how many committees were organized to accept federally regulated contributions. A larger total could go to candidates, if a donor decided to contribute in races throughout the country.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group that tracks the influence of money in politics, said the bill would set the campaign-finance system back decades.
"This is just as dangerous and corrupting as the unlimited soft money contributions that were banned three years ago," said Wertheimer, whose group is part of a coalition working to defeat the bill. Other opponents include Public Citizen and Common Cause.
"In essence, you are opening the door to Washington lobbyists and millionaires and billionaires to give huge amounts of corrupting contributions to buy influence, and you're opening the door to members of Congress and other federal officeholders soliciting huge amounts of corrupting contributions from a single donor in return for providing government favors and decisions," he said.
Wynn contends that keeping the existing limits on donations to candidates would provide protection against corruption, while allowing more candidates to benefit from a donor's largesse. Under current law, he noted, a donor could not give the $2,100 maximum to Wynn and the 42 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, because the total amount would exceed the $40,000 cap on giving to candidates.
Democrats "need to be more competitive" in elections, Wynn said. "A lot of people think this bill means we'll be out-raised. I'm not afraid of being out-raised."
The McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul, approved by Congress in 2002, was designed to ban unlimited contributions, known as "soft money," to federal candidates and parties. The new law, however, left a loophole that was widely exploited in last year's elections: Advocacy groups, known as 527s because of the part of the tax code that governs them, poured tens of millions of dollars into campaigns - without limits on how much donors could give.
Among the most prominent 527 groups were the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which pounded Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry over his Vietnam War record, and America Coming Together, a pro-Democratic organization that coordinated get-out-the-vote efforts in swing states. Reps. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, are sponsoring a measure designed to make 527 committees subject to the same limits and rules that govern other contributions.
A provision forcing 527 groups to the same disclosure rules as candidates and parties was added to the Pence-Wynn bill yesterday.