"There are a lot of donors who don't want their names in the newspapers," said Stephen Moore of the Free Enterprise Fund, which supports private accounts in Social Security and doesn't have to name its contributors.
The reason for the veil is that the Free Enterprise Fund was created as a nonprofit whose primary aim doesn't involve elections. Such a designation with the IRS gives even politically active groups like the Fund the sanction to be secretive. "The first question donors always ask me is, 'Is this going to be a disclosed donation?'" Moore said. "I say, 'No,' and they're happy."
The same is true for Bush's antagonists. Americans United to Protect Social Security, a labor-linked coalition against private accounts, doesn't need to disclose its benefactors either. It, too, was established as a nonprofit that doesn't have influencing elections as its focus. A spokesman, Brad Woodhouse, said that status was an advantage because of the confidentiality and because it allowed the group to take unlimited sums and to coordinate with Democratic leaders.
Even organizations that got used to telling all during last year's election are now relying on their non-campaign units, which are allowed to bask in mystery. Progress for America, which spent millions to keep Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) out of the White House (all disclosed to the IRS) has collected $9 million to help Bush on Social Security and won't say where it came from.
Ditto for FreedomWorks, the Business Roundtable's Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security, Americans for Tax Reform and the National Association of Manufacturers' Alliance for Worker Retirement Security.
Sometimes these and other groups voluntarily list their givers. The Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, for instance, long kept a partial rundown on its Web site but removed it after protests and demonstrations by the AFL-CIO targeted the coalition's financial services companies.
Derrick A. Max, the alliance's executive director, regrets the change. "I've always thought it's best to lay it on the table," he said. But he added, "I've tried that and I'm in the process of reevaluating."
The same story can be told of Bush's other legislative drives, especially his effort to rein in lawsuits. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a $40 million division called the Institute for Legal Reform that's dedicated to stopping trial lawyers. But you can't find the names of its donors anywhere, which is exactly the way the Chamber likes it.
"Our donors are not disclosed because trial lawyers have threatened to go after them," said Stanton D. Anderson, the chamber's chief legal officer. The way his group is structured, he explained, "No individual company puts its head above the parapet to be targeted by the trial bar."
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which advocates for the trial bar, is also surreptitious. ATLA has been dunning its members for extra dough to beat back the president's proposal on medical malpractice liability but it won't say who's giving or how much.
"The vast majority of money we raise is membership dues," said Carlton Carl, an ATLA spokesman. "No organization in the world would release its membership lists nor should they. We have a right to free association in this country."
True enough and that is a valuable right. Then again, if Social Security changes or if lawsuits are restrained, the people, companies and interests that made those things happen will never fully be known.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.