WASHINGTON — Rather than following the lead of prominent advocates for campaign finance reform, the House of Representatives recently voted to make American politics less transparent than ever.
The issue of the influence of so-called “dark money” on politics — hidden, high-dollar donations made possible by reforms to campaign finance law like the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — is receiving renewed attention this election cycle thanks to successful awareness-raising campaigns by presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, and legislators like Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
A September poll by Bloomberg Politics found that 78 percent of Americans would like to see Citizens United overturned. And that opposition isn’t coming from just one corner; it’s consistent across the party spectrum, from Democrats to Republicans to independents.
Instead of listening to the will of the people, on June 14, the House approved HR 5053, the Preventing IRS Abuse and Protecting Free Speech Act, which would block the IRS from collecting the names of donors to nonprofit organizations. The bill passed 240-182, almost entirely along party lines, with only one Democrat, Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, splitting from his party to support the bill, and only one Republican, Chris Gibson of New York, voting against it.
Contrary to the bill’s title, advocates for campaign finance reform and free speech say the bill actually hampers the IRS and impedes freedom of speech. USA Today reported:
“Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said the measure benefits groups and wealthy individuals who want to spend unlimited amounts in elections and conceal their giving. Stripping the IRS’ ability to scrutinize donors’ identities ‘creates a clear, new opportunity for foreign governments and corporations to launder illegal contributions into our elections,’ he argued.”
Democracy 21, joined by several other government watchdog groups, elaborated on the risks posed by the bill in a June 13 open letter to the House:
“[HR 5053] would open the door wide for secret money from foreign donors to be illegally laundered into federal elections through 501(c)(4) and other 501(c) groups. Foreign money cannot be legally spent in U.S. elections, but it can be given to 501(c) groups and they can spend money in our elections. These groups are not required to disclose their donors publicly, but they are required to make non-public disclosure of their donors to the IRS.”
USA Today’s Fredreka Schouten reported that the bill is openly supported by Charles Koch, the older of the two “Koch Brothers,” fossil fuel billionaires whose deep pockets hold a notoriously outsized influence on American politics.
In a statement quoted by Schouten, Mark Holden, general counsel to the Kochs and a leader at Charles Koch’s Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, said supporters of campaign finance reform are “determined to eviscerate and rewrite the First Amendment.”
“It’s an argument Koch officials have been making in fights at the state level. An arm of the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity has sued California Attorney General Kamala Harris over her office’s attempt to review the donor lists the group now provides to the IRS.
Officials in Harris’ camp say the donor information helps the office investigate possible fraud by tax-exempt groups. A federal judge has sided with Americans for Prosperity. Harris, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, has appealed.”
According to Kathy Kiely, a Washington correspondent at Moyers & Company, HR 5053 faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats hold more power and are determined to show their support for campaign finance reform. She also forecast that bill will likely be vetoed by President Barack Obama if it even reaches the Oval Office.
During debate, Democratic opponents of the bill were openly critical of its potential effects on democracy, Kiely reported.
“You’re trying to move this in the opposite direction” from what voters want in this election, declared Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland.
“The Republican majority believes the more hidden money in politics, the better,” said Sander Levin, a prominent Democratic representative from Michigan.