Proposed Rules Aggressive on Election Financing
President Obama's second inauguration coincided with the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's deeply flawed Citizens United ruling. Of all the faulty assumptions underpinning that decision, none was more disingenuous than the court's contention that contributing vast sums of money toward the election or defeat of a political candidate creates neither corruption nor the appearance of corruption.
Since that decision, much of the money that has poured into our elections has gone into the coffers of so-called social welfare groups, organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. These 501(c)(4)s tend to have innocuous-sounding names, like the American Action Network and the American Future Fund, and deceptively file paperwork with the IRS claiming they will engage in little to no political activity. In truth, however, they do little other than run vicious, negative campaign ads.
While the IRS has the jurisdiction to investigate 501(c)(4) groups that violate our laws and shut them down, so far it has taken a decidedly hands-off stance. And don't think these groups are only active in federal elections; increasingly, they are playing a role in state and judicial elections as well.
For example, a group called the 60 Plus Association, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to the AARP and claims to represent the views of senior citizens, ran a multi-state bus tour before the election centered on opposition to Obamacare. The association was particularly active in Arkansas state legislative races, assailing Democrats who the group claimed had supported the federal health care law - never mind that the Affordable Care Act was voted on by Congress, not state legislatures. Similarly, another 501(c)(4), Americans for Prosperity, was engaged in local races and issues in 35 states, with a $100 million budget.
Judicial elections, which in the past have often been low-key, low-dollar events, have seen increased spending and negative advertising as well. In Iowa in 2010, a 501(c)(4) called the Family Leader ramped up pressure and spending to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges who had voted to uphold the right to gay marriage the previous year. In 2012, supporters of the judges ran their own campaign to help another targeted judge survive his election.
The rampant nature of the problem, combined with the disappointing federal response to multi-million dollar organizations flagrantly violating tax law, is the reason my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, supports new regulations introduced by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The attorney general proposes to require any 501(c)(4) spending over $10,000 to influence state and local elections to disclose those expenditures, as well as the identities of donors who contribute $100 or more. Not only will these regulations bring much-needed transparency to the secretive world of political advertising, they will allow New Yorkers who see and hear political ads to place them in the proper context.
In proposing these regulations, Attorney General Schneiderman moves New York to the forefront of a national movement taking hold in the states to do the work the federal government can't or won't.
Nothing is more corrosive to our democratic system of government than politicians indebted to — and perhaps doing the bidding of — donors, while watchdogs, journalists, and most importantly, the voting public are left in the dark about these secret relationships. This is an issue on which both the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements agree. New Yorkers across the political spectrum should welcome this effort to ensure they can learn who is attempting to influence their votes.