The Dec. 30 editorial “Grinding down the IRS” soundly assessed the failure of the Internal Revenue Service “to regulate tax-exempt nonprofits and charities, just at a time when these groups are becoming more partisan,” and concluded that voters “will have less and less knowledge of who is paying for political activity in their democracy.” However, in assessing the blame for this conclusion, there was a crucial omission: the Federal Communications Commission, of which I am a former general counsel.
Under the Communications Act, broadcast viewers and listeners are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded. An FCC rule requires political and issue ads to disclose the “true identity” of the sponsors. But ads of tax-exempt entities such as Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA give no information on the true sponsors. The FCC was aware of such “dark money” ads in recent elections but took no action, on the specious claim that it was too busy; the real cause was congressional pressure. The present FCC chairman shows no interest.
Failure to obtain transparency as to donors behind campaign ads undermines the democratic process. It undermines the Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United v. FEC that prompt disclosure of expenditures provides “transparency [that] enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.” In another case, Justice Antonin Scalia warned of the danger of politics without disclosure: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Henry Geller, Washington