The New York Times
By: the Editorial Board
The ease with which big-money donors are able to influence the nation’s politics is nowhere better illustrated than by the charade that gives tax exemptions to obviously partisan political groups posing as “social welfare” organizations. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, thus merits thanks for his decision to sue the Internal Revenue Service to force it to end its controversial muddying of tax law that has allowed these groups to flourish.
Congress had set a firm definition in law that groups claiming what is known as tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” But, in enforcing the law, the I.R.S. decided they need only be “primarily” engaged in social welfare, not exclusively.
This opened the gates for groups from across the political spectrum to claim social welfare status and thereby be shielded from the need to disclose the identities of deep-pocketed donors whose main interest is cut-and-thrust politics. The lawsuit aims to end abusive schemes by which partisan operatives, exploiting the secrecy provided by the I.R.S. shield, bankroll political attack ads and other campaign agendas. The I.R.S. should be rooting for the lawsuit’s success because it would relieve the agency of playing the unfortunate and increasingly incompetent arbitrator of its own flawed regulation.
Lately the agency has been pilloried by Tea Party conservatives and others claiming that they have been unfairly singled out for scrutiny in lining up for social welfare exemptions. In truth, many groups applying from right and left do not merit the exemption and should be required to disclose political donors.
Independent campaign watchdogs have joined the lawsuit with Representative Van Hollen, whose purpose in seeking full disclosure is to guard against big-money campaign corruption. Political spending via the 501(c)(4) route tripled to $256 million last year from $83 million in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It is part of a trend in which undisclosed spending by nonparty groups has increased to 30 percent of campaign outlays last year from 1 percent in 2006, according to the Committee for Economic Development. The role of mystery money in politics is compounding with each election.