Blog — Department of the Treasury

November 03, 2015

Outside Spending Is Out of Control

By Katherine Duncan

In case there was anyone left who didn’t think money’s outsized role in politics is officially out of hand, take heed: super PACs and dark money groups spent five times more by the end of September than at the same point in the 2012 presidential election cycle. And that ratio is only increasing as the election season progresses.

The contrast becomes even starker when measuring the spending of non-disclosing groups, commonly known as “dark money” groups. A Center for Responsive Politics review of recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) data shows a tenfold increase in outside spending by these 501(c)(4) organizations compared to the same point in the last presidential cycle—that’s $4.9 million so far versus $440,560 in 2012. 

open secrets chart

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Among the worst and most troubling offenders in the bunch are single-candidate 501(c)(4)s, which by definition are “social welfare” organizations that under the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) interpretation of the tax code are not supposed to spend more than half their money on political activity. They are also supposed to be operated for the benefit of the public social welfare, not the private benefit of one person – in this case, one candidate. The 501(c)(4) classification allows donors to stay hidden, but many such groups seem to be violating these basic guidelines to veil their real purpose and anonymously influence elections. All of this adds up to too much money and too little accountability.

One thing that is worrying about this pattern—set into motion by the Citizens United decision in 2010—is that politicians and the associated groups touting them now often receive more attention and coverage for their fundraising efforts than for the issues they are supposedly championing. This coverage and push for financial transparency in politics is important, but outside money’s disproportionate—and growing—impact on elections calls for more regulation and increased enforcement, not just horse-race reporting.  

CREW has taken action recently to counter this trend, urging the FEC and IRS to tighten controls and hold these groups accountable with several recent complaints and calls for the FEC to make stricter rules. Federal agencies need to step up and curb this landslide before it leads to institutional corruption even more farcical than what has transpired thus far. 

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