WASHINGTON – You probably missed it amid the tempest over President Trump's meeting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, but "the swamp" Trump railed against in his campaign grew darker this week at the direction of his administration.
The U.S. Treasury Department Monday ruled that donors to many nonprofit organizations will no longer have to be publicly identified. This will keep the public from knowing who's really behind some of the ads that flood the airwaves and annoy the daylights out of us all in every autumn of every even-numbered year.
And to hear Robert Galbraith tell it, this is a very bad thing.
"This is FAR MORE important and damaging to democracy than Trump's press conference with Putin," Galbraith, senior research analyst at Buffalo's Public Accountability Initiative, said on Facebook.
Understanding exactly what the Treasury Department decided this week unfortunately requires a deep dive into IRS code, which is every bit as exciting as you would expect it to be.
The ruling affects two kinds of nonprofit groups that often get involved in politics: 501(c)4 groups, which are "social welfare organizations," and 501(c)6 groups, which consist of business leagues such as chambers of commerce, boards of trade and the like.
For years, these groups had to report their donors and donation amounts to the IRS. But now these groups will not have to do that – and that will have huge political ramifications.
That's because both 501(c)4's and 501(c)6's get involved in politics. You may or may not agree, but the National Rifle Association qualifies as a 501(c)4 social welfare organization, as does Planned Parenthood. And of course, business groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Association of Realtors have a lot at stake in the political realm.
Such organizations previously had to report donations of more than $5,000 to the IRS. And although the IRS redacted the names of the donors before releasing that information publicly, reporters were able to look at it and figure out if just a handful of millionaires happened to be behind one group or another. And with a little legwork, they could even scope out who was really donating the big money behind the messages that were beamed into our living rooms around election time.
But that was then.
"Now, these groups won't even have to disclose their donors and donation amounts to the IRS, making the world of dark money a whole lot darker," Galbraith said.
That's a continuing trend. "Dark money" is just what it sounds like – money that's spent spreading political messages without the public ever knowing all the details of who's doing it.
Worse yet, while federal law bars foreign interests from spending on U.S. political campaigns, the Treasury Department ruling makes it easier for them to break the law and do so, warned Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.
🚨 Trump’s @USTreasury has made it EASIER for anonymous foreign donors to funnel dark money into nonprofits THE SAME DAY a Russian national linked to the @NRA was arrested for trying to influence our elections.
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) July 17, 2018
Dark money has been flooding into politics for years, in part because of the 2010 Supreme Court decision called "Citizens United," which said the First Amendment right to free speech means government can't limit how much corporations can spend to spread political messages.
To Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, though, free speech isn't even the issue that prompted his department to make the change.
“Americans shouldn’t be required to send the IRS information that it doesn’t need to effectively enforce our tax laws, and the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job in this area,” Mnuchin said.
Mnuchin said his department's move won't limit transparency, but good-government types said it obviously would.
Americans for Prosperity – one of the groups funded by billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch – pushed for the change at the IRS, noted Jane Mayer, the New Yorker staff writer whose book "Dark Money" chronicles how the Kochs and others bought friends and influenced people in the political world.
Mayer took to Twitter to note that while the Kochs contribute to media organizations such as the Poynter Institute, the Knight Foundation and the Newseum, they're no friends of the free press.
"The Kochs just made it harder than ever for the press to follow the money," Mayer tweeted along with the news of the Treasury Department policy change. "Are they really 1st Amendment Champs? Who are you in business with?"
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