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.