The ploy of disguising secretly financed political machines as tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations has become one of the alarming trademarks of modern, big-money politics. Under cover of the tax code, the identities of donors are kept secret while they pay for attack ads against candidates, all the while claiming their main purpose is civic and nonpartisan. Operatives from both parties have gotten deep into this shell game. Fortunately, the Internal Revenue Service is, at last, promising to review and consider changing 50-year-old rules governing the limits of political activity for social welfare nonprofits that enjoy exemptions under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. This is encouraging news for voters in the dark as ads thunder away and for taxpayers who underwrite the abuse. It follows a court finding that the Federal Election Commission had arbitrarily weakened disclosure requirements.
The I.R.S., citing “current public interest in this issue,” promised a review after receiving complaints from the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 — watchdog groups that have been tracking the ballooning use of the “social welfare” guise to finance classic hardball politics. It is ludicrous to perceive Karl Rove, the canny Republican strategist and money raiser, as primarily nonpartisan and civic-minded as he tools up his Crossroads GPS operation with plans to spend millions of dollars during this year’s elections. Envious Democrats are following suit with attack machines of their own.