WASHINGTON, D.C. – A resolution set to overturn the Treasury Department’s recent ruling to eliminate the disclosure of donors to political organizations and other “dark money” groups to the IRS passed the Senate by a 50-49 vote on Dec. 12.
Introduced by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the narrowly passed resolution forced the vote under the Congressional Review Act to repeal the new guidance from the Treasury. It received support from every Democrat and Independent voting in the Senate along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Ma).
Following the vote, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) spoke on the Senate Floor voicing approval of of eliminating the rule. In July 2018, the Treasury Department originally announced that it would no longer require politically active nonprofit groups to disclose their donors to the IRS, a move esteemed by conservatives as a major win for free speech and a much-needed measure to protect “personal donor information.”
Van Hollen is known as a longtime champion of enhanced disclosure and transparency in elections.
“I rise in strong support for the resolution sponsored by Sens. Tester and Wyden to overturn the Treasury Department rule,” Van Hollen said to open his remarks. “We’ve heard loud and clear from the American people that they are sick and tired of the hundreds of millions of dollars of special interest money going into our elections. They are especially sick and tired of all the secret dark money going into our elections.”
Dark money, by definition, refers to funds donated to nonprofit organizations that in turn spend it in order to influence elections. These nonprofit organizations, such as the National Rifle Association, can receive an unlimited amount of donations but aren’t required to disclose its donors.
President Donald Trump has been considered a recipient of dark money from a number of groups, lobbyists, organizations and a number of private donors. The 45th commander-in-chief has faced unending criticism for his ties to what are known as dark money ‘networks.’
“These dark money forces are a threat to our democracy, and they must be reined in,” Tester said in a statement. “Today’s action sheds more light on the wealthy few who are trying to buy our elections and drown out the voices of regular folks. We must wrestle our country back and continue to bring transparency and accountability back to political campaigns.”
Under the Treasury’s rules, tax-exempt organizations no longer had to file “personally identifiable information” in their end-of-year tax returns. Other groups which were exempt from disclosure included politically active nonprofits.
“Americans shouldn’t be required to send the IRS information that it doesn’t need to effectively enforce our tax laws, and the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job in this area,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said of the then-new IRS policy in a statement from July. “The IRS’s new policy for certain tax-exempt organizations will make our tax system simpler and less susceptible to abuse.”
Van Hollen, in addition to many other Democratic political figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, was diametrically opposed to the idea of unnamed wealthy individuals contributing to organizations which have the leverage to essentially buy elections, while the American public has no idea who those donors are.
“The public wants to know – and has a right to know – who is spending all that money to try to influence their votes,” Van Hollen said.
During his speech, Van Hollen said the passing of the resolution will make President Trump aware that the “vehicle of choice” for these dark money organizations has been organizing under section 501(c)(4) of the internal revenue code; thus, 501(c)(4)s are still required to confidentially report where their funds are coming from and how much.
Opponents of the resolution argued that campaign finance restrictions are a violation of donors’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
The resolution is a “blatant attempt to stifle free speech and serves no purpose in the enforcement of tax regulations,” said Nathan Nascimento, executive vice president of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce – a group said to be backed by the Koch brothers, a family well-noted for a history of dark money spending.
The Senate move is less than likely to survive the GOP-led House, which must vote on the resolution before the end of the year.
“So Mr. President, I think a lot of people are wondering why it is that this Administration – and now maybe the Senate – wants to actually cover up for those who want to spend their money secretly to try to elect or defeat candidates,” Van Hollen said.
“And one thing we know is that across the board, no matter whether they are Republicans, Democrats or Independents, Americans believe – and I agree with them – they have a right to know who is spending their money to try to influence their vote. Let’s pass this resolution to overturn the Treasury rule; that rule is just a defense of secret money when we need more transparency and accountability.”