Democrats are stepping up the pressure on politically active nonprofit groups to divulge their largest donors, part of a broader partisan debate over disclosure rules that has spilled into the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney.
Last week, the office of Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service questioning the tax-exempt status of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which has been a sharp critic of Obama administration policies and has received millions of dollars from unidentified donors.
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“We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” the president said.
The letter is part of a wide-ranging pro-disclosure campaign by Democrats, who fear that their side will be massively outspent this year by well-funded conservative groups, many of which do not disclose their contributors. Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation aimed at forcing corporations and advocacy groups to reveal donations over $10,000 for campaign-related activities.
Republicans have blocked the legislation and accuse the Obama administration and its allies of attempting to use the power of the government to intimidate anonymous conservative donors. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) alleged in a speech this month that Obama was targeting critics with “thuggish tactics” reminiscent of the Nixon administration.
The parties have clashed repeatedly over the disclosure issue since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations are akin to people when it comes to political speech and can spend unlimited money on elections. That decision and others have sparked a wave of political spending by independent groups, including many that are considered tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations that do not have to reveal their funding sources.
The Obama campaign argues that voters have a right to know which corporations and individuals are funding groups that run ads or pay for other activities related to elections. Highlighting Romney’s connections to such groups also dovetails with the Obama campaign’s broader critique that the likely Republican nominee and former private-equity manager is out of touch.
Obama and his team have made the issue of wealthy donors and transparency a regular part of their campaign message in recent weeks, asking supporters to sign a petition “demanding that these secret front groups disclose for the country exactly who their donors are.”
Obama’s chief counsel, Bob Bauer, filed a complaint last week asserting that Crossroads GPS, a tax-exempt group that has funded millions of dollars in ads criticizing the president, should be required to register with the Federal Election Commission. The complaint cites a recent court case upholding FEC disclosure rules.
Bauer said in an interview that Republicans oppose disclosure because so many conservative groups rely on the promise of anonymity to raise funds.
“The predominant strategy behind this anti-disclosure campaign is to protect their fundraising base,” he said. “They decided at the end of 2008 that they weren’t going to get outspent again, and it’s working.”