The Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph, Nov. 29, 2013
If somebody runs a television ad a week before an election criticizing a candidate's stand on gun control, it's a pretty safe bet they're not trying to help her election chances.
Likewise, if somebody spends thousands of dollars in the middle of a hotly contested campaign and ties another candidate to the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act, it's fair to assume they're using that issue to elect that candidate's opponent.
Yet, there are those who want to pretend that such attacks on candidates are really no such thing if they come from tax-exempt nonprofit groups that have become popular ways for big-money donors to seek influence in political campaigns.
Just how popular they've become was spelled out in a story in The New York Times: Political spending by tax-exempt nonprofits exploded in 2012, topping $300 million. In 2006, it was only $5.2 million.
The appeal of those nonprofits? Their ability to keep the names of their donors secret.
The Treasury Department this week proposed new rules that would restrict and redefine the political activities of those nonprofits -- known as 501(c)4 groups.
Republicans balked at the proposal, arguing that it would intrude on their freedom of speech.
We don't begrudge members of any party working to get their candidates elected, but the secrecy that surrounded campaign spending in the last election ought to trouble everybody who cares about democracy. If an organization working to elect or defeat a candidate makes certain statements about that candidate or about an opponent, we think it's entirely reasonable for the public to be able to see who is paying for the bullhorn.
Especially because tax-exempt means the public is, in effect, using the tax code to encourage such behavior.
In theory, 501(c)4 groups are allowed to involve themselves in political campaigns as long as their primary purpose is to promote issues involving the "social welfare."
That's all well and good -- or at least it was before this class of nonprofit was co-opted by political operatives to create a way for people to give large amounts of money without having their names attached to it.
What the Treasury Department proposes to do is foster a little truth-in-advertising and call things what they are. For instance, when an organization mentions a candidate by name within 60 days of an election, the proposed rules would define that as a candidate-related activity and add it to the list of things that specifically fall outside the realm of "social welfare" activities.
In other words, it would end the game of "make-believe" that allowed wealthy donors to pump money into political campaigns without anyone knowing about it by pretending that the money was really helping "social welfare" causes and not candidates.
Republicans immediately complained that the proposed rules are another attempt to target them by the same Treasury Department that singled out groups with conservative-sounding names for additional scrutiny last year. That issue is largely diversionary, insofar as the IRS targeted non-conservative groups for extra scrutiny, too. But more than that, it's largely beside the point.
It's important for the public to be able to see the identities of the donors who are supporting a particular candidate. Without such transparency, there can be no true accountability. The proposed changes seek to bring IRS rules into closer alignment with political reality and end the political culture of make-believe.
As long as such rules are evenly enforced, the public and the process would be better served by such changes, at least until those who are determined to bend the process for their own ends find the next loophole.