Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Republicans—Yes, Republicans—Are Joining the Battle Against Big Money Politics

| Mon Nov. 25, 2013 10:32 AM EST
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.), the author of a new campaign finance reform bill.

After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee published a 100-page autopsy (PDF) nobly titled the "Growth and Opportunity Project" that pointed the supposed way forward for the humbled Grand Old Party. Regarding the dark-money-driven, super-PAC-mad politics of today, the document left little doubt about the party's view: Let the money flow. The RNC called for ending the ban on "soft money" (the 1990s-era equivalent of dark money that fueled the Clinton White House scandals), raising contribution limits, removing the aggregate limit on how much overall money a donor can give in one cycle, and further deregulating money in politics at the state and federal levels.

But as the cost of winning an election increases, fundraising swallows up more of a congressman's time, and candidates scramble to acquire their own super-PACs, several House Republicans are bucking their own party and demanding real reform.

Last week, Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) introduced a bill called the Citizens Involvement in Campaigns, or CIVIC Act, with the hope of spurring more small-dollar donations to political campaigns by reviving a pair of tax incentives. Petri's bill would offer small donors two options. They could receive a tax credit of up to $200 (or up to $400 on a joint tax return) for donations made to a campaign or national political party. Or that same donor could claim a tax deduction of up to $600 (up to $1,200 for a joint return) for political donations. The intent is obvious: entice many more small donations to candidates.

When he unveiled his bill, Petri lamented both the cost of running for federal office and the growing clout of very wealthy donors in the political process. "Campaigns are becoming more and more expensive with no signs of slowing down," he said. "And most would agree that the ideal way to finance a campaign is through a broad base of donors. Unfortunately, most Americans aren't in the position to donate hundreds or thousands of dollars—but they want to get involved. We should be encouraging political participation."

Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans have ever made a political donation, polls show. And for all of President Barack Obama's success in reeling in scads of small donations (aside large contributions), politics remains dominated by big money. In last year's elections, more than 60 percent of all donations came from donors giving more than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. As for super-PACs and nonprofits, well, those are the playgrounds of millionaires and billionaires on both sides of the aisle.

Another House Republican, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), recently introduced a bill of his own aiming to reform another cash-crazy part of congressional politics: so-called leadership PACs. Leadership PACs are different from your typical campaign committee. Instead of raising money for a politician's own reelection bid, leadership PACs, which sprung up in the 1990s, allow members to raise money for distributing to their colleagues' reelection campaigns. By spreading money around to your pals, a lawmaker can earn some goodwill and climb the ranks within his or her own party. Thanks to a loophole in the law, however, lawmakers often use their leadership PACs to pay for golf outings, tickets to NFL games, and other swanky junkets that politicians can't pay for with their traditional campaign war chest.

Harris' bill would close that loophole. "Public opinion of Congress is already low enough," he said. "By banning the personal use of political committee funds, we can help improve the public trust in Congress."

Let's face it: In the Republican-controlled House, these bills stand little chance of passage. (The slew of Democrat-introduced reform bills, which tend to be more extensive and comprehensive, are also doomed.) Yet the fact that Republicans are joining the reform effort matters. In the past, when campaign spending has spiraled out of control and resulted in headline-grabbing political scandals, Congress' instinct has been to look for the reforms already on the table and to pass one or some of those reforms in the scandal's aftermath. And if the bills have a bipartisan imprimatur, all the better.

So Petri's and Harris' proposals may be DOA. But should another money-and-politics scandal strike, these bills will be ready to go—and they'll have Democrats and Republicans ready to jump onboard.

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FEC: We Won't Treat Tea Partiers Like Jim Crow-Era NAACP Supporters

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 4:19 PM EST

By a 3-2 vote, the Federal Election Commission on Thursday rejected a national tea party group's request to stop disclosing its donors under an exemption that originated with protections given to the NAACP and its members who faced violence during the Jim Crow era. 

Here's the background: The Tea Party Leadership Fund is a year-and-a-half old political outfit that has received $2.5 million in donations from some 600 contributors. The Fund makes independent expenditures and also contributes directly to candidates, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Steve Gaines (R-Mont.). Earlier this year, the Fund handed the FEC 1,400 pages of what it said was evidence of "harassment, threats, and reprisals" against the group and its donors. Citing all that evidence, the group asked the FEC for an exemption so that it no longer had to disclose its donors and other vital campaign finance information.

This exemption has been granted only rarely by the FEC: The most prominent recipient is the Socialist Workers Party, which has received this exemption for several decades after showing considerable evidence of threats and harassment of their supporters. (The NAACP's exemption was granted by the Supreme Court in 1958, which set a precedent for future exemptions.)

The decision over whether to give the Tea Party Leadership Fund the same exemption has been closely watched by campaign finance advocates and election lawyers. Some feared granting the exemption could set a precedent allowing many other political committees who felt harassed to get the same treatment, gradually eroding the nation's disclosure laws. "If the FEC allows it, it's a very slippery slope of this group and that group and this group all getting exemptions, too," says one Democratic campaign finance lawyer.

Opponents of the Tea Party Leadership Fund's request also argued that what the group considered harassment was far less severe than what the NAACP and Socialist Workers Party faced. "This tea party group comparing itself to the NAACP of old, whose membership feared for its lives and its livelihoods, would fail the laugh test if their request was not so offensive and so outrageous on its face," Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, said on Wednesday.

At Thursday's meeting, the FEC's commissioners split on the matter. Republicans Matthew Petersen and Caroline Hunter agreed with the tea party group, citing the scandal over the IRS' targeting of tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status. The Democrats broke the other way. Chair Ellen Weintraub quoted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's 2010 comment that "running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage"; tea party donors, she said, needed to show that courage. Democrat Ann Ravel, meanwhile, agreed with the Campaign Legal Center's argument that the Tea Party Leadership Fund's evidence of harassment paled in comparison to what the NAACP and Socialist Workers Party experienced.

Watchdog: Grover Norquist's Group Misled IRS About Its 2012 Political Spending

| Tue Nov. 19, 2013 5:31 PM EST
Grover Norquist.

Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative advocacy group run by activist Grover Norquist, plunged headlong into federal elections in 2012, urging voters in California, Colorado, and Ohio to oust Democratic lawmakers. In all, ATR told the Federal Election Commission that it spent nearly $16 million last year on independent expenditures—political ads urging voters to support or defeat a particular candidate that aren't coordinated with any candidates or parties.

Norquist's group recently submitted its 2012 tax filing to the IRS, detailing all its spending for last year. In that filing, ATR says it spent just $9.8 million on politics in 2012—a difference of some $6 million compared to what ATR told the FEC.

On Tuesday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group, seized on that discrepancy in a complaint filed with the IRS and Justice Department. CREW alleges that Norquist's group misled the IRS about the extent of its political spending.

ATR may have had reason to low-ball the political spending figures it reported to the IRS. Norquist's group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, also known as a social welfare organization. Under the tax law, 501(c)(4) nonprofits such as ATR—which do not have to disclose their donors—can wade into campaigns and elections but cannot spend a majority of their money on political activities. From only reading ATR's 2012 tax filing, the group appears to abide by that restriction: ATR reported spending a total of $30 million in 2012, only $9.8 million of which went toward politicking. No issue there.

But if ATR in fact spent nearly $16 million of its $30 million budget on politicking, as CREW claims it did, then that's a different story. "ATR's own IRS and FEC filings provide incontrovertible evidence that ATR is breaking the law," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "If Al Capone could be nailed for tax violations, so can Grover Norquist."

ATR spokesman John Kartch says CREW's complaint is "baseless" and "nonsense." He added, "Americans for Tax Reform's reporting strictly abides by the definitions of political activity and political expenditures maintained by the FEC and IRS."

Read CREW's complaint against ATR:

 

This isn't the first time CREW has accused Norquist and ATR of misleading the IRS. In March 2012, the watchdog claimed that ATR failed to report to the IRS more than $2 million in political spending in 2010. (The group told the FEC it spent $4.2 million on independent expenditures, but it told the IRS its political outlays were just $1.85 million.) Neither the Justice Department nor the IRS has responded to CREW's 2012 complaint.

Nor is the ATR the only political group facing questions about its tax filings. The Center for Public Integrity recently reported that an anti-Obama nonprofit with ties to the Koch brothers, the American Energy Alliance, told the IRS it engaged in no "direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office" in 2012. Yet the group spent more than $1 million on TV ads in Virginia and Ohio last fall urging viewers to "vote no on Obama's failing energy policy." An American Energy Alliance spokesman said the ads were in no way political, but Marcus Owens, a former IRS official, said the group's tax filing "certainly raises a red flag."

Elizabeth Warren Joins the Battle to Overhaul the Senate Filibuster

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 11:49 AM EST
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is lending her voice to the chorus of lawmakers who want substantive changes made to how US senators use the filibuster, the main tool of opposition by the minority party.

The impetus for Warren's comments came on Tuesday, when Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama's nominee to the influential DC Circuit Court of Appeals, Georgetown Law Professor Cornelia Pillard. If she's ever confirmed, Pillard would be the fourth woman on this important federal appeals court, which decides often-consequential cases between the federal government and private parties. Senate Republicans have also filibustered Patricia Millett's nomination to the appeals court and say they plan to block another appeals court nominee, Robert Wilkins, as well.

In the face of all this obstruction, Warren has joined progressive stalwarts such as Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) in demanding real changes to how the filibuster is used. "So far they have shut down the government, they have filibustered people [President Obama] has nominated to fill out his administration, and they are now filibustering judges to block him from filling any of the vacancies with highly qualified people," she said. "We need to call out these filibusters for what they are: Naked attempts to nullify the results of the last election."

Warren went on: "If Republicans continue to filibuster these highly qualified nominees for no reason other than to nullify the president's constitutional authority, then senators not only have the right to change the filibuster, senators have a duty to change the filibuster rules," Warren said. "We cannot turn our backs on the Constitution. We cannot abdicate our oath of office."

Whether Warren's call for filibuster reform results in any actual changes is unlikely. The closest we've come in recent years to real filibuster reform came in July, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid grew so angry at the GOP's use (abuse, according to the Democrats) of the filibuster that he almost used the so-called "nuclear option"—changing the Senate rules so that a nominee could be confirmed with a simple 51-vote majority instead of 60 votes. At the last moment, Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cut a deal to avoid the nuclear option and instead confirm a slate of Obama nominees, including EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez.

Plan for more close calls like Reid's July showdown—but with both parties wary of losing the filibuster as a tool for minority power, don't expect major reform any time soon.

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