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Editorial: No Longer Pretending

Campaign Cash Flows Unimpeded

There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when people worried about the corrupting influence of money on U.S. politics were most frustrated by the constitutional prohibition against limits on campaign spending.

Well, thought the worriers, if we can’t de-emphasize the importance of money by controlling how much candidates can spend, at least we can minimize the damage by capping the amount any one donor can give.

Then came the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which essentially abolished those limits. Individuals, corporations and unions willing to dig deep into their pockets to influence election results were pretty much free to do so through donations to political action committees. Well, thought the reformers, maybe they can, but at least we have disclosure requirements that will allow voters to follow the money.

If we can’t control the flow of money into politics, at least we can track it.

Then came the realization that disclosure requirements could be evaded.

Donors who wished to throw their money around trying to influence elections could do so anonymously by writing checks to 501(c)(4)s — tax-exempt organizations purportedly pursuing social-welfare issues.

Those organizations could run ads bemoaning what, say, President Obama had done in a particular policy area, but they couldn’t directly tell people how to vote.

At that point, the reformers could have tried to comfort themselves with the belief that those groups funded by huge, anonymously written checks couldn’t be direct players in the political game, but it wouldn’t have been much of a consolation. An ad that warns people that Obama is responsible for the end of civilization as we know it really doesn’t have to take the extra step and explicitly tell people that they ought to find somebody else to vote for.

But even that thin shred of control over campaign cash appears to be illusory. According to a report on National Public Radio last week, the 501(c)(4) known as Crossroads GPS has ditched that particular pretense: As of the end of last week, it had bought more than $4 million of commercials in Wisconsin and Ohio that unambiguously urge people to vote for Mitt Romney. Crossroads GPS is the Karl Rove creation that was formed alongside his super PAC, American Crossroads, for those who wished to make large contributions to the Republican and Romney cause but wished to avoid publicity. More than half of the $70 million collected by the two organizations has gone to Crossroads GPS, and its benefactors therefore remain shielded from public view.

So what happened to the prohibition that was supposed to stop these groups from direct participation in electoral politics? It seems to have been ignored as soon as it was regarded as too inconvenient. A Crossroads GPS spokesman told NPR that IRS rules on tax-exempt groups require that social welfare issues be their primary mission, but not their exclusive one. “Nonprofit groups are allowed to undertake some political activity as part of their missions as long as it’s not the central thing they do,” said Jonathan Collegio, the Crossroads GPS official.

Crossroads GPS must still maintain the pretense of having a core mission outside of electoral politics, but for reformers, the charade is really over.