Democrats seek curbs on groups friendly to GOP that shield donors
Contending that the tax-exempt groups' "major purpose is federal campaign activity," the complaint says the Federal Election Commission should regulate them as political committees and that their donors must be disclosed.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Democratic Party's Senate-campaign arm will file a formal complaint Monday with the Federal Election Commission against three of the Republicans' biggest campaign groups, accusing them of willful violations of federal election law and asking that their electioneering be stopped.
The complaint by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee against Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, Americans for Prosperity and the 60 Plus Association begins a new phase in the Democrats' struggle to keep pace with Republicans since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. That decision cleared the way for unlimited campaign donations to a new breed of super PACs from corporations, unions and wealthy contributors.
The complaint targets Republican-leaning "social welfare" organizations that have received or are requesting tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allows funding sources to be kept private. Such groups are prohibited from devoting themselves primarily to political activity, but Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, for instance, has conducted a $25 million advertising campaign that attacks President Obama on fiscal issues.
Obama has inveighed against the influence of outside money on the political process, but his campaign has more recently signaled that donors should give to pro-Obama super PACs, which can run overtly political ads and must disclose donors.
But Democratic groups in general have not kept pace in raising money, especially in Senate races, which already have attracted a barrage of negative Republican advertising.
"Democrats are clearly struggling under the ocean of this outside influence," a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee official said Sunday.
Contending that the tax-exempt groups' "major purpose is federal campaign activity," the complaint says the FEC should regulate them as political committees and that their donors must be disclosed.
"Respondents are raising and spending millions of dollars to accomplish their major purpose of influencing federal elections, while hiding their funding sources," according to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. "By operating in secret, they have violated and continue to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act."
The FEC is usually slow to respond to such complaints, and it is unclear if any action would affect the 2012 election.
But Democratic officials hope an FEC investigation of the complaint will give pause to donors who wish to remain anonymous, or thwart the next group to come along.
Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, said complaints that excluded Democratic groups doing "exactly as their center-right counterparts are publicity stunts to promote partisan causes and are not taken seriously by serious people."
The chairman of the 60 Plus Association, James Martin, said: "This isn't about the law. It's naked politics, pure and simple. They need to stop their whining and stop trying to achieve with lawyers what they can't in the arena of public opinion."
Representatives of Americans for Prosperity did not return telephone calls or emails on Sunday.
The complaint makes clear that the priority for Democrats is the Senate.
Only a handful of defeats in November would hand Republicans control of the chamber and likely all of Congress, since the Republican majority in the House appears firm.
The complaint singles out a campaign by the 60 Plus Association, a conservative seniors organization, against Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio; a Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies advertising blitz against Sen. Jon Tester of Montana; and Americans for Prosperity campaigns against former Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia and former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who are running for the Senate.
Republicans, led by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have said the drive to force disclosure of donors is an effort by Democrats to bully Republican supporters into silence.
"My concern is that selective disclosure would be used to harass people — think President Nixon and his 'enemies list' — who have participated in the political process or scare others from doing so," McConnell wrote in USA Today last week.