The Federal Election Commission told political advocacy groups Friday that it would enforce new disclosure rules for some nonprofits under a recent court ruling, but many key groups have taken steps to evade the requirements. Legal experts said the FEC guidance makes it clear that nonprofit groups will have to reveal some of their major donors if they pay for electioneering communications — also known as “issue ads” — that name political candidates but stop short of urging viewers to vote for or against them. But advocacy groups such as the conservative Crossroads GPS still have many ways of evading disclosure, often simply by changing the tenor or language of their advertising, experts said. The rules also only apply to ads that run close to an election. Major advocacy groups had already stopped running issue ads close to primary elections this summer in anticipation of the FEC’s guidance. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said it will simply alter the language of its ads to avoid reporting contributors to the FEC.
The issue is part of a broader debate over the outsized role that secret money is playing in the 2012 elections, particularly in funding attack ads targeting President Obama and other Democrats. Tax-exempt “social welfare” groups do not have to reveal their donors to the public as long as their “primary purpose” is not politics, a requirement that critics say is being flouted. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled in March that the FEC had overstepped its authority in 2007 when it issued rules allowing groups that produce issue ads to withhold the names of those funding the ads. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) had challenged the regulations.
Democrats and watchdog groups cheered the ruling as an important step forward in forcing disclosure. But questions remained about how quickly the FEC, which is often deadlocked along partisan lines, would move to enforce the requirements. The FEC said groups running more than $10,000 in issue ads in the weeks before an election will be required to divulge contributors who give more than $1,000 toward the effort. The requirement is retroactive to March 30.