The Spokesman-Review (Wash.) —
It’s a different story for campaign contributions, which can be quickly accessed on the PDC’s website. In fact, Washington government has repeatedly gotten high grades for putting information online that is in depth and user-friendly. But a recent AP and public radio investigation revealed that lobbyist reporting needs to be brought into the 21st century.
New York Times —
Unlike registered lobbyists, these intelligence tipsters are not required to report their clients and fees to the government, even though they sell the information to Wall Street traders and hedge funders who pay handsomely for an inside edge. Some are registered lobbyists who disclose their advocacy activity, while pocketing useful information as a separate, unreported endeavor. Beyond making Congressional rounds, The Washington Post reported, they have set up meetings for Wall Street investors in the health care industry to visit White House staffers in search of information. Nothing illegal here, but these specialists should have to register like lobbyists so the public could at least find out who is accorded an inside track.
At the same time, Congressional proponents are reviving a measure that almost made it into law last year: a requirement that political intelligence operatives register and publicly disclose their dealings. The measure was deleted by the Republican House from a new law that bans Congressional lawmakers and staffers from profiting from nonpublic information and requires monthly disclosure of their market transactions.
In reviving the measure, Representative Louise Slaughter, Democrat of New York, said the Medicare dealings, reportedly spurred via a Capitol Hill leak, was an insult to Congress. “We do not exist to affect the markets,” she told the newspaper Roll Call. Surely, responsible colleagues in both houses should agree, in their own self-interest, and force disclosure by the information parasites living off Congress.
LA Daily News —
Good for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who reversed her previous position and agreed to make the state's database of lobbying and campaign finance available to the public daily online.
It's a big step in transparency for who's spending how much to pass what, or to elect or influence whom - which Californians need to inform their voting choices.
She then announced that, beginning by Labor Day, her office will upload twice a day an updated copy of the Cal-Access database of spending on lobbying and campaigns, so that the data can be downloaded as a single file by members of the public and the media.
Among groups that signed the initial request, besides Maplight and Common Cause, were the California Newspaper Publisher's Association, the Sunlight Foundation and California Forward.
The Washington Post —
Meanwhile, the political process is sliding backward toward the practices of the years before the Watergate reforms. More than $300 million in secret contributions were spent by outside groups in the 2012 presidential and congressional races. In the last cycle, a large share of the hidden cash was channeled through 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations. And here’s a key fact that often gets overlooked: Under the rules, these organizations have to disclose their donors to the IRS. Only the public remains in the dark.
Secrecy denies vital information to voters about who is contributing to which candidates. Very often, these contributions are made in search of influence on policy. We think openness here is a more valuable public good than is providing a cloak for every fat cat who wants to remain hidden.
An attempt toward more transparency was made in the last Congress with the Disclose Act, but the measure was blocked by Republicans. Now Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has joined with a Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to offer a fresh attempt at a bipartisan bill, the Follow the Money Act, which, they declared, will cover “the full universe of independent political spenders.” One welcome idea in the bill is real-time electronic reporting and disclosure of contributions. It is not clear whether the mechanism of the bill would deliver the worthy goal of universal coverage, but there is time to hammer out details. It’s significant that Ms. Murkowski has become the first Republican in a while to sign up for a campaign disclosure bill, and we hope she can persuade others to join her.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel —
There are about four times as many lobbyists in Nashville as state legislators, and the amount spent on influencing the votes of lawmakers is almost twice the amount spent on the General Assembly’s operating budget — $67 million to $38 million, respectively.
It is too easy sometimes to decry the money spent on lobbying efforts or to complain about the 525 lobbyists seemingly taking over the capital during the legislative session. However, almost everyone, including watchdog groups, accept the fact that money is part of doing business in government. This makes it all the more incumbent on the public to be vigilant.
Continuous, ongoing disclosure will help voters understand where the message is coming from and who is paying for it. Plugging loopholes in laws affecting lobbying also should be an ongoing legislative responsibility.
Ideally, the scandal will lead to reform of the vague rules that govern political groups. It will also lead Congress to end the practice of anonymous donations to political causes, which is at the heart of the controversy. Are you sufficiently naive to believe such a fruitful outcome is possible? We didn’t think so.
Unfortunately, this defense crumbles when examined in the context of the IRS’s approach to other groups. Indeed, some highly political 501(c)(4) applicants seem to have enjoyed smooth sailing. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, a tax-exempt organization that spent more than $70 million in the 2012 campaign aiding the election of Republican candidates, experienced no great IRS troubles. Similarly, the Service Employees International Union used a 501(c)(4) to work just as obviously (albeit with fewer dollars) for the election of Democrats. No hassles there, either.
Then there’s the deeper dysfunction this episode exposed. Until Congress passes the Disclose Act, which would end the practice of anonymous political spending, the IRS will continue to oversee groups that spend millions to influence the political process. What’s more, well-financed, powerful groups with deep political connections and access to first-rate legal advice will continue to whiz through the IRS express lane while genuine citizen organizations, Tea-Party-inspired and otherwise, will endure long waits to have their applications approved. The inspector general found one hapless applicant waiting 1,138 days for approval. We don’t know the victim’s name. We’re pretty sure it wasn’t “Rove.”
The Spokesman-Review (Wash.) —
The Citizens United ruling – coupled with subsequent changes in election laws – paved the way for deep-pocketed contributors to give to super-PACS without having to disclose their names. These super-PACs became central players in the 2012 elections, even though they were supposed to remain neutral to justify their tax status. To get around that restriction, groups claimed their official tasks were to educate the public, but everyone knows they were engaged in partisan politics, whether it was Crossroads GPS, directed by former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, or Priorities USA Action, directed by former Obama campaign official Bill Burton.
The money from these groups was poured into advertising in swing states and swing districts. It’s laughable to believe that these are the only areas of the country in need of “education.”
However, the Cincinnati office’s choice to hone in on conservative groups indicates that the law was not being enforced fairly. That’s too bad, because it’s clear that this tax status is being exploited for political purposes by people who wish to remain anonymous. The names of 501(c)(4) donors do not have to be disclosed. Congress could help matters by passing the DISCLOSE Act, which would help lift the veil on secret contributions, but stupidity at the IRS has provided ammunition to those who prefer the status quo.
New York Times —
The Internal Revenue Service was absolutely correct to look into the abuse of the tax code by political organizations masquerading as “social welfare” groups over the last three years. The agency’s mistake — and it was a serious one — was focusing on groups with “Tea Party” in their name or those criticizing how the country is run.
The I.R.S. should have used a neutral test to scrutinize every group seeking a tax exemption for “social welfare” activity — Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. Any group claiming tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(4) of the internal revenue code can collect unlimited and undisclosed contributions, and many took in tens of millions. They are not supposed to spend the majority of their money on political activities, but the I.R.S. has rarely stopped the big ones from polluting the political system with unaccountable cash.
Last year, we supported the I.R.S. in aggressively asking Tea Party groups seeking this special tax status to prove that they were not political activists. We urged the I.R.S. to be just as tough on groups already claiming 501(c)(4) status — like Priorities USA, a Democratic group founded by former White House aides, as well as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS group and Americans Elect, a third-party group — as on Tea Party chapters seeking tax-exempt status.
The Register-Guard —
The online group sourcewatch.org quotes the Sunlight Foundation as reporting that the NRA spends 66 times as much money as the leading gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. And OpenSecrets.org says the NRA spent $25 million on advertising during the 2012 election cycle and spends $3 million per year on federal lobbying.
Los Angeles Times —
The other argument is that campaign finance regulation is not the province of the SEC but of Congress, the Federal Election Commission and the courts. But those bodies have failed to act. So far, Congress has not passed the DISCLOSE Act, a measure that would mitigate the worst effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling by requiring disclosure of political spending, including disclosure to shareholders. And the FEC has failed to devise clear rules for post-Citizens United disclosure.