The Internal Revenue Service says it won’t come out with new proposed rules for so-called dark money groups until late spring at the earliest, increasing the likelihood that no changes will take effect before the 2016 elections. These groups—social welfare non-profits that can engage in politics, but do not have to disclose their donors—have become a major force in elections, pouring at least $257 million into the 2012 elections. The Wesleyan Media Project estimates that dark money paid for almost half the TV ads aired in the 2014 Senate races. The IRS originally issued a draft version of the rules for dark money groups more than a year ago, but withdrew them for revisions after receiving intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. It’s unknown how aggressive the IRS’ new proposal will be in attempting to rein in political activity by social welfare non-profits. Some observers expect the agency to set a hard limit on how much of groups’ spending can be devoted to politics, perhaps 40 percent or less.
Some advocates of campaign finance reform have touted tighter IRS controls as the best shot of reining in the influence of such groups ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
Under the current IRS rules, social welfare non-profits are allowed to spend money on politics as long as they are “primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” But it’s unclear exactly how much revenue groups can put toward politics, and which activities count as political.
As ProPublica has reported, social welfare non-profits have sworn under penalty of perjury that they would not engage in politics and then spent heavily to influence campaigns. Some have spent much or all of the money they raised on elections. Others have reported campaign expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, then told the IRS that the spending was not political.