“Tea Party Is An Election Category”: The IRS, Non-Profits, And The Challenge Of Electoral Exceptionalism
What the IRS scandal really shows us is that it’s getting harder and harder to draw a line between electioneering and political speech.
As the report of the IRS Inspector General shows, the agency’s scrutiny of conservative groups applying for non-profit status was, more than anything, a clumsy response to a task the IRS is ill-equipped to carry out – monitoring an accidental corner of campaign finance law, a corner that was relatively quiet until about 2010.
That corner is the 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, belonging to what are sometimes called “social welfare” groups, which enjoy the triple privilege of tax exemption (though not for their donors), freedom to engage in some limited election activity, and, unlike other political committees (PACs, SuperPACs, parties, etc.), freedom from any requirement to disclose information about donors or spending. The use of (c)(4)s as campaign vehicles didn’t originate with the Citizens United decision in 2010 (Citizens United, the organization that brought the case, was already a (c)(4)), but the decision seems to have created a sense that the rules had changed, and even small groups – especially, apparently, local Tea Party organizations — rushed to create (c)(4)s.
501(c)(4)s are not prohibited from engaging in political speech of most kinds. They are free to be “biased” without jeopardizing their tax exemption. They can advocate for or against legislation, they can lobby the government or criticize it. They don’t have to make any effort to be “non-partisan” – for example, they can support a proposal that is only supported by members of one party, or directly advise only members of one party. And they can engage in some activity directly intended to influence the outcome of an election, as long as that doesn’t constitute the organization’s primary purpose.
There’s some confusion about the definition of “primary purpose,” discussed in great depth elsewhere, but what the IRS was trying to do was to identify organizations that seemed more likely to be heavily involved in electoral activity. Since the organizations were new, there was no way to look at their actual activities to see whether they were mostly electoral. So the agency had to rely on clues in the applications, like names and telltale phrases. If organizations had words like “Democrat” or “Republican” in their titles, for example, it would be reasonable to look more closely at their election activities, or possible future activities, than an organization that called, for example, “Save the Turtles.” I’m told that organizations with the names of political parties do receive extra scrutiny, even if in some cases, like “Students for a Democratic Society,” the word might mean something unrelated to the name of the party. That’s what the closer scrutiny would find out.
“Tea Party” in 2009 and 2010 was unquestionably an election category – there were “Tea Party” candidates and there was a “Tea Party Caucus” in Congress. It was not unreasonable for the IRS to use that phrase as an indicator that an organization using that phrase might be more inclined to engage in elections. There are comparable phrases on the left – for example, the term “Netroots” might suggest election involvement, as there were groups that identified and endorsed “Netroots” Democratic candidates in 2006 and later. Perhaps there were simply fewer organizations applying for (c)(4) status with that word, or they came in before the 2010 flood, or perhaps the IRS did screen on that word – we don’t know.
While there’s a perfectly plausible case for the IRS to use flag-words that indicate an election-focused movement, the actual questions asked of the groups do raise some concerns. If accurate, they did seem to go beyond evidence that these organizations were primarily engaged in elections, such as questions about lobbying and the role of family members.
But the reason these questions are complicated for the IRS, or for any agency assigned to police these complicated distinctions, is this: The line between robust political speech and influencing elections has become frightfully difficult to draw. Finding the right line around what is an “election” is really the fundamental problem in campaign finance. Almost everyone accepts the premise of “electoral exceptionalism” – elections are structured and require some particular rules, different from the rules that apply generally to political speech. The rule in most states that keeps campaigners 75 or 100 feet from the voting booths is the most obvious uncontroversial restriction on political speech, and there is broad acceptance of the idea that direct contributions to candidates and campaigns should be limited to prevent corruption and dependence. But what happens after that? What about outside spending that looks just like campaign spending? We used to think there was a clear distinction between “issue ads” that were expressing a view on an issue and “electioneering communications” that were the equivalent of campaign contributions. That distinction is actually what the Citizens United case was about — the provision of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that defined broadcast communications that mentioned a candidate within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election as electioneering, which had to be financed with regulated funds.
That was an improvised line then, and it’s gotten even blurrier since. Part of the problem is partisanship – it used to be, for example, that there were environmentalists in both parties, supporters of social spending in both parties. A political ad about the environment was just that. But what’s an ad or brochure attacking “Obamacare” during the election year? Every Republican opposes it, and they’ve given it the name of the president. The Tea Party was based on issues, yes, but above all else, it was based on unflagging, total opposition to Obama and congressional Democrats.
To figure out where election advocacy begins and regular political speech ends in these cases was certainly more than mid-level IRS bureaucrats in Cincinnati could handle. But it’s not an easy challenge for anyone. All the noise about IRS “targeting” and about free speech and corporate speech is a distraction from a real challenge of money in elections: finding an agreement on the line around an “election,” and establishing some clear rules for what happens within that line in order to ensure that elections are fair and open and don’t lead to corruption.
By: Mark Schmitt, The National Memo, May 16, 2013
The IRS is under siege for investigating conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status. But the real problem wasn’t that the IRS was too aggressive. It was that the agency focused on the wrong people—“none of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets,” writes The New York Times—and wasn’t aggressive enough. The outrage that Washington should be talking about—what my colleague Chris Hayes calls “the scandal behind the scandal”—is how the Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of secret spending in US elections that the IRS and other regulatory agencies in Washington, like the Federal Election Commission, have been unwilling or unable to stem.
501c4 “social welfare” groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—which don’t have to disclose their donors—spent more than $250 million during the last election. “Of outside spending reported to the FEC, 31 percent was ‘secret spending,’ coming from organizations that are not required to disclose the original sources of their funds,” writes Demos. “Further analysis shows that dark money groups accounted for 58 percent of funds spent by outside groups on presidential television ads [$328 million in total].”
IRS guidelines for 501c4 groups state that “the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office…a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” It’s ludicrous for groups like Crossroads GPS—which spent at least $70 million during the last election—to claim that its primary purpose is not political activity. Only the likes of Karl Rove would believe that running attack ads against President Obama qualifies as social welfare.
So what did the IRS do about this blatant abuse of the tax code by some of the country’s top corporations and richest individuals? Virtually nothing. “When it comes to political spending, the IRS is more like a toothless tiger,” wrote Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti last year in a story headlined, “The IRS’s ‘feeble’ grip on big political cash.”
It’s obvious that our Wild West campaign-finance system needs more, not less, scrutiny and much tighter, not looser, regulation. Yet conservative groups are exploiting the IRS scandal to further dilute regulatory agencies that are already on life support. Writes Andy Kroll of Mother Jones:
The IRS’s tea party scandal, however, could hinder the agency’s willingness to ensure politically active nonprofits obey the law. The IRS will likely operate on this front with even more caution, taking pains not to appear biased or too aggressive. That in turn could cause the agency to shy away from uncovering 501(c)(4) organizations that do in fact abuse their tax-exempt status by focusing primarily on politics.
The Rove’s of the world would like nothing more than for the public to believe that conservative groups had too few opportunities to influence the 2012 election and were wrongly persecuted by evil Washington bureaucrats. Yet the 2012 election should have taught us precisely the opposite lesson—that our patchwork regulatory system is far from equipped to deal with the new Gilded Age unleashed by Citizens United. As Rep. Keith Ellison told Hayes last night: “We need to redouble our efforts to bring real campaign-finance reform forward.”
By: Ari Berman, The Nation, May 14, 2013
If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court pretends, they certainly are loudmouths, constantly telling us how great they are and spreading their names everywhere.
Amazingly, though, these corporate creatures have suddenly turned demure, insisting that they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. That’s because, in this case, corporations are not selling, they’re buying — specifically, trying to buy public office for their pet political candidates by funneling millions of corporate dollars through such front groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In turn, the fronts use the money to air nasty attack ads that smear the opponents of the pro-corporate candidates.
Why do corporations need a middleman? Because the ads are so partisan and vicious that they would appall and anger millions of customers, employees and shareholders of the corporation. So, rather than besmirch their own names, the corporate powers have meekly retreated behind the skirts of Republican political outfits like the Chamber.
But don’t front groups have to report (at least to election authorities) who’s really behind their ads, so voters can make informed decisions? No. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizen United edict in 2010, such groups can now pour unlimited sums of corporate cash into elections without ever disclosing the names of their funders. This “dark money” channel has essentially established secret political campaigning in America.
That’s why shareholders and other democracy advocates are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to rule that the corporate giants it regulates must reveal to shareholders all political donations their executives make with corporate funds. After all, the millions of dollars the executives are using to play politics don’t belong to them — it is shareholder money. And by no means do shareholders march in lockstep on which political candidates to support or oppose.
Hide and seek can be a fun game for kids, but it’s infuriating when CEOs play it in our elections. Last year, corporate interests sought to elect their candidates by hiding much of their politicking not only from company owners but also from voters. In all, $352 million in “dark money” poured into our 2012 elections, the bulk of it from corporations that covertly pumped it into secretive trade associations and such scams as “social welfare charities,” run by the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.
Since underhanded, anonymous electioneering puts a fatal curse on democracy, the SEC should at least compel corporate managers to tell their owners — i.e., the shareholders — how and on whom their money is being gambled in political races. It’s a simple reform, but — oh, lordy — what a fury it has caused among the political players.
A rare joint letter from the U.S. Chamber, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers has been sent to the CEOs of the 200 largest corporations in our country, rallying them to the barricades in a frenetic lobbying effort to stop this outbreak of honest, democratic disclosure.
House Republicans are even going to the extreme of trying to make it illegal for the SEC to let shareholders (and the voting public) know which campaigns are being backed by cash from which corporations. Hyperventilating, these powerful scaredycats claim to be intimidated by the very suggestion that they tell the people what they’re doing in public elections.
Their panic over having a little sunlight shine into their deepest bunker reveals just how destructive they intend dark money to be for our democracy. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s chief assumption in allowing unlimited corporate cash into the democratic process was that shareholders would be informed and involved, and provide public accountability for their companies’ political spending.
Even Justice Antonin Scalia, long a cheerleader for corporate politicking, is no fan of hiding it from the electorate: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage,” he has written, adding that a campaign “hidden from public scrutiny” is anathema to self-governance. He also deems it cowardly: “This does not resemble the Home of the Brave,” he pointedly noted.
By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, May 8, 2013
The United States faces many grave challenges, such as declining living standards, global warming, rogue nuclear regimes, gun violence and now domestic terrorism. But none are as fundamental as or more pressing than the decline of democracy.
Last week’s vote in the United States Senate to defeat a proposal for more thorough background checks for gun buyers is the new poster child for popular disgust with Congress. It’s been 125 days since the massacre in Newton, Connecticut. 20 kids and six adults lost their lives and Congress hasn’t done a thing to curb gun violence.
The president has certainly done his part and more. A clear majority of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons, but Senators ignored their constituencies. (57 percent favor-41 percent oppose, ABC News/Washington Post). Even worse, nine of ten people favor background checks for gun purchases but Congress couldn’t even get that right. (91 percent, ABC News/Washington Post.)
Even if the Senate had passed the background check proposal it would have almost certainly failed in the House of Representatives, which the National Rifle Association owns gun lock, gun stock and gun barrel. The founders created the House of Representatives as the “peoples’ house,” but that was long ago and far away. Last year, Democratic House candidates won a majority of the vote but Republicans harvested the majority of seats.
Right now fewer than one in five Americans gives Congress a positive job rating. (18 percent, Gallup). The abject failure of Congress to respond to the public’s concern about rampant gun violence means that grade will get even lower. The questions are how low Congressional approval can go and how long democracy can endure when one of the three branches of the federal government is completely unresponsive to the public it should represent.
Gun control isn’t the only area of concern in which Congress is completely clueless. Seven out of ten Americans favor an increase in the minimum wage to $9.25 but that won’t even get a vote in the GOP dominated House (71 percent, Gallup). Less than one out of every five people favor cuts in Medicare and Social Security, but both the president and congressional Republicans want to hack at health care and pensions for seniors (18 percent, CBS News).
Why is Congress able to ignore public opinion? Because it can do anything it wants with the financial backing of corporate America. Forty two of the forty five U.S. Senators who voted against background checks received campaign contributions from the NRA. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that corporate America donated $1.3 billion to party committees and politicians last year.
That figure does not include the money that corporations spend in independent expenditure campaigns. The corporate money in the 2012 campaign dwarfed the contributions from labor unions. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that corporations prosper while the standard of living for working families continues to decline.
An unresponsive Congress isn’t the only challenge to democracy. The right to vote has steadily expanded all through history, except in late 19th century Jim Crow America. In the early days of our republic, only white men with property enjoyed suffrage. By the 1830′s all white men got the right to vote. Women finally received their due in 1920. And except for a few years right after the Civil War, the vote came for many black Americans only 50 years ago.
Now, Republican governors and state legislators want to roll back the clock and the tide of American history by finding ingenious ways to prevent black and Latino voters from fully enjoying their rights as citizens.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his famous treatise celebrating our great democracy, “Democracy in America,” in 1824. If he had written the book today, the title would be either “Democracy in America?”, “Democracy in Decline” or even “Democracy at Death’s Door.” I’m optimistic that democracy can revive itself, but it will take a lot of work and a lot of commitment from Americans who take their freedom for granted.
In post-Citizens United America, corporations are people, politicians are bought and people are peasants. The U.S. faced the same problem late in the 19th century when U.S. Senators represented companies rather than their constituents. But democracy survived and the excesses of the gilded age led to a renewal of economic populism during the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The sooner that happens, the better off we all will be.
By: Brad Bannon, U. S. News and World Report, April 22, 2013
The Securities and Exchange Commission took a bold step in considering new rules that would require publicly traded companies to disclose political donations. This is a good idea because since the Citizens United decision, corporate entities have moved away from disclosed campaign committees, and instead have begun funneling cash into secret campaign funds, mostly 501c nonprofits.
Last year, The Nation published an investigation that debunked the idea that corporate money has flowed mostly to so-called Super PACs in the wake of Citizens United. Rather, big business has embraced nonprofit trade associations and issue advocacy groups to pour hundreds of millions into direct campaign advocacy. The distinction is important because Super PACs, for all their problems, at least disclose their donors and spending records; trade associations and issue advocacy groups do not.
To the credit of reformers, particularly the Center for Political Accountability and several investor groups, many large corporations have voluntarily adopted transparency measures. While we should applaud corporations that go beyond the letter of the law in disclosing these funds, a system based on voluntary participation does not come close to solving the problem of secret political slush funds. In some cases, voluntary disclosure actually obscures the truth.
Take health insurance companies. Aetna, Aflac and WellPoint are among several that have adopted voluntary disclose rules to provide the public and shareholders with a window into their giving patterns. There’s one problem: they aren’t truthful.
In 2009, the major health insurers, including the aforementioned companies, secretly funneled over $86.2 million to the US Chamber of Commerce, a trade association, using another trade association as a proxy to move the money, to run television and radio advertisements against health reform. Aetna’s disclosures that year only revealed $100,000 to the Chamber. WellPoint and Aflac failed to report those donations, as well. The following year, during the midterm elections, Aetna again secretly provided $7 million to “American Action Network,” a social welfare nonprofit used to run partisan attack ads against Democrats, along with the Chamber, which spent over $50 million on a partisan campaign to elect mostly Republicans that year. Again, Aetna’s voluntary disclosure report made no mention of the money, which became public through an inadvertent regulatory filing.
Similarly, several major oil companies have adopted voluntary disclosure guidelines that are fairly useless. ExxonMobil and Valero Energy are two examples: Both firms proudly produce annual reports on which candidates and political parties they fund. The problem? That data can be found already on the Federal Elections Commission website and related state-level disclosure websites, so there’s nothing new. As The Nation has reported, oil companies often work through secretive trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, which has become more active in financing campaign-related advertisements and grants to other dark money groups.
As Senator John McCain and others have noted, the hundreds of millions slushing in secret money is bound to lead to another major scandal. And that scandal will likely to produce a lot of liability for the corporations involved. Moreover, as attorney Jerry Goldfeder noted in a letter to the New York Times this week, the I.R.S. has sent a questionnaire to 1,300 nonprofit groups questioning their tax exempt status. The increased scrutiny could lead to new questions that could increase liability for corporations: Are these groups being used to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, by funneling cash to foreign governments? Are consumer brands secretly funding ads that could harm the perception of their product (as was the case with Target and their donations to an anti-gay politician in Minnesota)?
Under the current system, only corporate executives, their lobbyists, and certain politicians really understand where the money is flowing. Shareholders, the public, and reporters have a right to know, too.
By: Lee Fang, The Nation, March 29, 2013