Guest column: IRS lets 'social welfare' nonprofits pour big bucks into politics

By Rich Robinson/Michigan Campaign Finance Network

ProPublica ("How nonprofits spend millions on elections and call it public welfare") recently detailed how the federal tax code is exploited to conceal the identities of the biggest spenders in Campaign 2012.

Today’s political social welfare organizations exist mostly to drive election outcomes. That is an uneasy fit with the ideal of being engaged "primarily," as the Internal Revenue Service says, in furtherance of "common good and general welfare of the people of the community."

By now, the names of the big political nonprofits may be familiar to you: Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS, American Future Fund. The Democrats have a few, too. Mostly, theirs haven’t done much.

With the exception of the month before our February presidential primary -- when all the viable candidates and their respective Super PACs were active here -- the nonprofit advocacy corporations and, lately, the Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future have had exclusive hold on Michigan’s television airwaves. The premise of their social welfare mission is that they are merely educating you when they tell you how bad President Obama is for you. 

(What’s the difference between a Super PAC and a 501(c)4?)

The political nonprofits have spent more than the highly publicized Super PACs this year. Nationally, through Aug. 8, ProPublica reports that the nonprofits spent $71 million and the Super PACs spent $54 million. Liberal nonprofits accounted for $1.6 million of that total.

Those (ad) sales figures are estimates compiled by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

In Michigan, the big trend is the same, but it leans even more toward the nonprofits than the Super PACs. Through Aug. 20, the nonprofits had spent $7.7 million and the Super PACs $2.4 million. I collected those sales figures from the public files of state broadcasters and cable systems.

All that Michigan spending criticized Obama, except one $500,000 buy touting Romney’s management of the Salt Lake Olympics, which ran during the London Olympics.

All this matters because donors to the nonprofits are not disclosed, while donors to Super PACs are.

(ProPublica fields questions on its “dark money” coverage)

Surely you’ve heard that Macau casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife have given about $40 million to the Super PACs of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney? But you don’t know anything about the identities of those who gave the money to the bigger, more prolific spending 501(c)4 committees.

The U.S. Supreme Court says persons and corporations have a right to spend their money on political messages -- and the citizens have a right to know about it. But our feckless Congress has to redeem that right for us.

This is not some giant celebration of the First Amendment. It is the hijacking of democracy by a handful of extremely wealthy persons, and maybe a few corporations -- we just don’t know who.

But the big wheels aren’t supposed to be able to use Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or Fingerprint-B-Gone, to do it. They’re supposed to be accountable for their actions -- Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United makes that clear.

What was once a standard conservative position – "Let anybody spend whatever they want, just make sure they disclose" – is heresy to today’s Republicans. Other than U.S. Supreme Court justices and The Detroit News editorial page, it’s hard to find a conservative voice in support of transparency and accountability.

The new narrative -- as articulated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Cliff Taylor and birds of their philosophical feather -- equates transparency with "intimidation."

Depending on how you feel about the role of the invisible hand in our federal politics, I’ve got good news or bad news about Michigan politics. Proportionally, disclosure and transparency of state campaigns are much poorer than you find at the federal level.

Feeling better?

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Michele Strasz
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 8:30am
These "supposed non-profits" give legitimate non-profit organizations who provide services to the poor a bad name. Most of us will never have enough money to mount a "media campaign" for or against a candidate, let alone have enough funding to serve all the people in need.
Carol Lucas
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 9:22am
I really appreciate this knowledge. Now, what can we do about this?
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 12:54pm
I am pooor eoungh to not watch TV ..the conyerter BOX changes every time the wind changes...MY radio is on the all I listen too is the sound of the wind...
William P Thompson
Sun, 09/02/2012 - 7:52am
I think your organization should be called The Left of Center of Michigan and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network should be identified as an affiliate of the Libral Media.....and s. melvin comments , "all I listen too is the sound of the wind." He has a direct connection to Joe Biden.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 09/02/2012 - 10:47am
John Jay, first Supreme Court justice said (bad paraphrase): "The people who run this country should be the ones who own it." Now we have government beholden to the highest bidder. Note Upton's move to the right, since he took the chair job, and his campaign contributions.