Here’s a textbook case for the DISCLOSE Act that’s up tomorrow for a vote. It centers on Americans for Job Security, a pro-business issue advocacy group, that has reported zero dollars in donations supporting ads that cost millions to create and air.
In the wake of Citizens United, and later, SpeechNow.org v. the Federal Election Commission, the FEC issued advisory opinions this summer that said political groups making “independent expenditures” — political spending for or against a candidate that’s crafted and funded entirely independent of a candidate or party — are allowed to collect unlimited contributions from corporations or individuals, but should register with the FEC as a political action committee and detail their finances, if they plan to do so. Some groups, like American Crossroads and Club for Growth, signed up, while others, like Americans for Job Security, said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’
Now, as Kenneth Doyle at BNA Money and Politics reports (subscription required), AJS is crossing over from its usual fare of sponsoring “issue ads” to begin funding a number of “express advocacy” messages — i.e. ones that call explicitly for the defeat of Democratic House candidates, like Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). It has since filed three “independent expenditure” reports, as required, with the FEC for about $3.75 million worth of ads, but the reports list “.00” in the box for reporting “total contributions” received to pay for the group’s ads.
How is this allowed? Doyle notes that groups like AJS are interpreting recent FEC rulings to mean that its disclosure rules only apply under very specific circumstances — so specific, in fact, that they never tend to occur:
A key statement issued by the FEC’s three Republican commissioners in August indicated that a contribution had to be disclosed only if it was explicitly linked by the contributor to a specific ad. The statement was issued in an enforcement matter involving the conservative group Freedom’s Watch, which sponsored millions of dollars worth of ads in the 2008 campaign. (2829 Money & Politics Report, 8/19/10).
Under this interpretation put forward by the Republican Commissioners on the FEC, only contributions that donors link to specific ads in specific times and places need to be disclosed. Since donors rarely if at all make such specific demands on their donations (and have no incentive to do so, either), this effectively nullifies the FEC’s disclosure requirements for independent expenditures from groups that don’t register at PACs.
And who or what, exactly, is AJS? It’s organized as a nonprofit trade association, so it doesn’t have to provide public disclosure of its regular donors. It says it has more than 1,000 members on its website, but doesn’t identify a single one of them:
The organization says it does not disclose its membership because “too often politicians or the media define an organization or message not by the merits of the argument, but rather by the perception of the people associated with it. We would rather the people decide on merits instead of name-calling.”