Feature:Opinion

501(c) nonsense

Photo of George Scoville
George Scoville
Media Strategist

An honest election-year appeal from a zealous campaign finance reform candidate would sound something like this: “If you send me to Washington, I promise to make it more difficult and expensive than it is now to remove me when I inevitably betray you!” But since Mitt Romney’s campaign out-raised President Obama’s re-election campaign by $35 million in June 2012, after Obama 2012 raised only $39 million in May 2012 (approximately $270 million cycle-to-date; that’s not only off-pace to reach his $750 million total haul in 2008, but puts him far short of his present $1 billion goal), the “secret money” knives are again coming out in campaign finance warfare. The left’s latest targets are 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups, for which it is lawful to raise unlimited sums from anonymous donors, and to spend unlimited sums on issue ads (relative to Internal Revenue Service compliance requirements).

Take, for example, a recent blog post by New York Times editorial board overseer Andrew Rosenthal, who opines, complete with a Koch brothers dog whistle, that “501(c) mischief” will be to blame for any electoral misfortune Dear Leader may suffer this fall — never mind the president’s now-infamous “one-term proposition” on righting the economy, his betrayal of the anti-war left, or his broken-record responses on unemployment figures. Rosenthal directly attacks Crossroads GPS, preemptively blaming the 501(c)(4) sister organization to the American Crossroads super PAC for a yet-to-be-determined political outcome. (You’ll be tickled to know that just over a week after Rosenthal’s screed, Crossroads GPS announced a $25 million swing-state ad buy that takes the president to task for his perpetual victimhood in the face of ongoing national crises.)

Rosenthal says the $100 million that Crossroads GPS plans to spend this cycle, raised from anonymous donors, is evidence of a broken and corrupt system, and woe be unto all of us since neither the IRS, nor the Federal Election Commission, nor members of Congress will do anything about the “problem.”

Funny, I don’t recall Rosenthal decrying the Service Employees International Union’s $85 million in expenditures during the 2008 election cycle. What about the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees spending a combined $150 million in the 2010 cycle? What’s the spending threshold for a nonprofit group before its ad buys become a litany of insidious dirty tricks, worthy of scaremongering by a distinguished newspaper’s editorial page overseer? What about groups on the left — particularly “money in politics” groups like United Republic — that use nonprofit groups to launder money that funds political speech? What about the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action, which accepted over $200k in funds from its sister 501(c)(4) Priorities USA, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, even though the Obama campaign openly stipulated that any super PAC spending money on its behalf must disclose its donors?

There’s only one correct answer to these questions: there is no spending threshold, there is no universal ethical principle backing these absurd claims. Campaign finance reformers don’t want money out of politics. They only want their opponents’ money out of politics. And lest anyone mistake me, I even want my friends on the left to be able to raise and spend money anonymously on political campaigns. What people facing inevitable defeat will say in their defense boggles the mind.