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“Getting Secret Money Out Of Campaigns”: It’s In The Public Interest To Disallow Sleazy Secret Money In Campaigns

The Internal Revenue Service spent years averting its eyes while clever campaign operatives abused the tax code for political purposes. Advocacy groups, mostly on the right, wanted to run attack ads while concealing the source of their money, and they came up with a brilliant way to do it: claim to be “social welfare” groups, which are allowed to hide donors.

Federal statutes say these groups can only engage in social welfare activity, but the tax agency decided political activity was fine as long as it wasn’t the primary purpose of the group. That helped create the torrent of secret money that poisoned the last few federal elections. The I.R.S. never explained, though, what kinds of activities are considered political, or why these groups, also known as 501(c)(4)’s, should be allowed to participate in campaigns at all.

On Thursday, long after the abuse became too rampant to ignore, the I.R.S. took the first tentative steps at reining in the problems it helped create. It proposed a definition of “candidate-related political activity,” an important starting point in determining what tax-exempt groups are really allowed to do. But it will have to do much more than that if it wants to be taken seriously as a regulator on this battlefield.

According to a press release from the Treasury Department, the agency said the new definition of political activity would include ads or other communications that clearly advocate for a candidate or party, or ads that mention a candidate within 60 days of a general election (30 days for primaries). That’s a good start for a definition, though 60 days is far too narrow a window — many of these attack ads air a full year or more before voting begins.

Once political activity is defined and separated from social welfare activity, 501(c)(4)’s  will no longer be able to claim, as Karl Rove and others have, that “issue ads” mentioning candidates are for social welfare purposes. (These are the kinds of ads that say, “Dog-kicking is terrible. Call Senator Jones and tell her to stop doing it.”)

But a definition alone won’t do any good unless the I.R.S. tells these groups how much political activity is permitted. The ideal answer would be: zero. Social welfare groups have no business meddling in politics. Any group with a political interest has its own place in the tax code — they can be a 527 political organization. Those groups, which include political parties and official campaign organizations, also get tax exemptions, but there is one crucial difference: they have to disclose their donors, and 501(c)(4)’s don’t.

Conservatives immediately claimed that the I.R.S. was trying to take away their free-speech rights, which is laughable. Absolutely nothing is stopping advocacy from running ads, and the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, even granted corporations the right to make unlimited donations to independent groups that produce political ads. But there is no right to keep these donations a secret.

The Treasury announcement, tantalizingly, said the I.R.S. would consider comments from the public on how much political activity should be permitted for a social welfare group, suggesting that decision was farther down the road. It’s in the agency’s interest to end the confusion surrounding 501(c)(4)’s, which has led to charges that it has been arbitrary in its audits. But it’s in the public interest to do even more, and disallow sleazy secret money in campaigns.


By: David Firestone, Editors Blog, The New York Times, November 27, 2013

December 1, 2013 - Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics | , , , , , ,

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