Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 25, 2014

Posts in "Campaign finance"

April 20, 2014

‘Grass-Roots’ OFA Snags First Million-Dollar Donor

White House officials like to trumpet Organizing for Action as a “grass-roots-funded organization,” but the six-figure donors to President Barack Obama’s tax-exempt advocacy group keep adding up, and it just snagged its first million-dollar contributor.

Hedge fund founder and biotechnology entrepreneur David Shaw became the first OFA donor to clear $1 million, thanks to his $500,000 contribution to the organization in the first quarter of this year. Other top donors include author and philanthropist Amy Goldman Fowler, who’s given $750,000 since OFA’s inception in January of last year, and Fred Eychaner, president of News Web Corp., who gave $500,000 to help get the group off the ground.

More than half of OFA’s $32 million in receipts so far still come from small donors of $250 or less. In this quarter, OFA collected $5.9 million from 124,000 donors and the average contribution was $38.68, officials announced. Still, close to two dozen high-dollar donors have now given $100,000 or more. The top 10 donors have contributed $3.9 million collectively so far.

This inner circle includes such top Obama presidential campaign bundlers as Eychaner and Shaw, along with Wall Street investors, CEOs and executives in the real estate, entertainment, pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Ten donors have given $200,000 or more, including California philanthropist John Goldman; Utah venture capitalist Ryan Smith; New York City philanthropist and composer Philip Munger, and investor Mark Gallogly.

Obama administration officials have rejected suggestions that six-figure donors enjoy special access to the White House, and have ignored calls from watchdogs that Obama shut the group down.

As a tax-exempt advocacy group barred from spending most of its money on politics, OFA has also ignored complaints from congressional Democrats that it’s sitting out  elections. The group has focused instead on the president’s policy agenda, including promoting enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, and advocating for immigration and gun safety legislation.

OFA takes no lobbyist or corporate money and voluntarily discloses donors of $250 or more every quarter. Shaw, OFA’s first million-dollar contributor, is worth $3.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and has served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both Bill Clinton and Obama. OFA’s top 10 donors are:

  1. David Shaw, co-founder D.E. Shaw: $1 million
  2. Amy Goldman Fowler, New York author and philanthropist: $750,000
  3. Fred Eychaner, president, News Web Corp., Chicago, Ill.: $500,000
  4. Ryan Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah, venture capitalist: $351,260
  5. Philip Munger, New York City philanthropist: $250,000
  6. John Goldman, Atherton, Calif., philanthropist: $225,000
  7. Mark Gallogly, co-founder, Centerbridge Partners: $200,000
  8. Kenneth Levine, senior vice president, McAfee: $200,000
  9. Olan Mills II, chairman emeritus, Olan Mills, Inc.: $200,000
  10. Jon Stryker, New York City architect, philanthropist: $200,000

April 5, 2014

SCOTUS Spawns Search for Son of ‘Super PAC’

The chattering classes (no insult intended) are scrambling to come up with a snappy moniker for the joint fundraising committees that may emerge as political power centers in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

First, the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal alerted readers that the McCutcheon ruling, which struck the aggregate campaign contribution limit, would force them to learn all about these until-now obscure joint committees. The headline said it all: “Figured Out Dark Money Groups, Super PACs? Thanks to the Supreme Court, You’ll Have to Learn About This, Too.”

Next, The Washington Post’s Matea Gold challenged readers of “The Fix” blog to come up with “some pithy names” to describe joint fundraising committees, as well as the turgidly-named “outside groups” that play such a big role in campaigns these days. Gold launched the contest on Twitter, and will announce the winners next week.

So what are joint fundraising committees, and what should they be called? Election lawyer Robert Kelner, who chairs Covington & Burling’s election law and political practice group, has already got his answer: “super joint fundraising committees” or “super JFCs” for short. In a statement on the day of the ruling, Kelner predicted: “We expect to see the emergence of so-called super joint fundraising committees (JFCs) involving many candidates to which a donor could write a single very large check.” Full story

April 2, 2014

Will McCutcheon Ruling Boost Political Parties?

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Priebus voiced his excitement on the ruling Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus could hardly contain his glee during a conference call with reporters shortly after the Supreme Court ruled to strike the aggregate limit on campaign contributions.

“We are excited about the outcome of this case,” exulted Priebus, noting that the RNC bankrolled the constitutional challenge brought by businessman Shaun McCutcheon from beginning to end. In McCutcheon v. FEC, the court ruled 5-4 to overturn the overall limit on what an individual may donate collectively to parties, candidates and PACs in one election cycle, which was capped at $123,200 total.

The ruling “allows us to go to our donors and say: Look instead of being able to give to only nine Senate candidates, you can now give to the 14 that are most in play,” Priebus told reporters. “And you can give to the Senate committee, the congressional committee and the RNC, and you can max out to all three.”

Priebus wasn’t the only party official rejoicing in the wake of the high court’s Wednesday ruling. One Democratic campaign committee operative confided that he was “happy as a pig in shit.” While advocates of campaign finance limits on and off Capitol Hill assailed the ruling as an invitation to corruption and campaign finance abuses, party officials welcomed the decision. Full story

Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

scotus 078 100813 445x296 Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speaks at the Supreme Court after McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission arguments last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 11:45 a.m. | In a long-awaited ruling in the case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court today struck the aggregate limit on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Significantly, the high court left in place the base limit on how much individuals and political action committees may give to candidates and political parties. But today’s ruling makes a challenge to that direct contribution limit, which stands at $2,600 per election for an individual, all but inevitable in the near future.

What the court overturned today was the overall limit on the amount that one individual may give to candidates, parties and PACs in a two-year election cycle, a cap that now stands at $123,000. Republican businessman Shaun McCutcheon had challenged the aggregate limit on the grounds that giving the same amount to a larger number of candidates would not invite corruption. Full story

April 1, 2014

Christie’s Contractors: Backers Barred From Donating Found Loophole

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may manage to put the George Washington Bridge scandal behind him, but even if he does, his ethics troubles won’t be over.

Christie’s complicated relationship with campaign contributors and state contractors, in particular, will draw scrutiny as he continues to mull a 2016 presidential bid. Christie’s donors have a history of gravitating to secretive and little-regulated political groups to promote the GOP governor and his agenda.

These include tax-exempt organizations that spent millions on Christie’s gubernatorial election and re-election campaigns, and that operate outside the disclosure rules. Political activity by nonprofits has become commonplace these days, and Christie’s opponents run their own non-disclosing tax exempt groups.

But Christie’s big backers, who have bankrolled several pro-Christie operations, stand out because many of them are state contractors otherwise barred from contributing to his campaign. New Jersey “pay-to-play” laws, considered the strictest in the nation, bar large state contractors, utilities and financial services firms that manage state pension funds from donating to state candidates.

Yet a long list of New Jersey contractors and pension fund managers have given generously to groups that either back or are closely linked with Christie. Such contributions have repeatedly raised questions as to whether Christie supporters are skirting the state’s pay-to-play laws — a suggestion that the state Treasury Department, which enforces those statutes, has rejected.

Full story

March 25, 2014

Steeped in Overhead: A Look at the Expenses of Tea Party Groups

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Chocola runs the Club for Growth. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated, 5:20 p.m. | Republican leaders are stepping up their campaign to discredit tea party activists who are challenging them on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, accusing conservatives of lining their own pockets at the expense of the GOP.

A recent radio ad for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — who is under attack from the right in his own primary — blasts the Senate Conservatives Fund for spending its money “on a luxury townhouse with a wine cellar and hot tub in Washington, D.C.” House Republicans joke privately about the “conservative-industrial complex.” Even Ann Coulter has warned of “con men and scamsters” infiltrating the tea party movement.

Such claims hold more water for some groups than others in a movement with no clear leader. The tea party, loosely defined, is scattered among more than a dozen multimillion-dollar organizations, from the Club for Growth to FreedomWorks, to the Tea Party Express and the conservative startup Madison Fund, all with different bottom lines and spending patterns.

Some of the groups that have come in for the most criticism, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund — which calls the McConnell radio ad inaccurate — actually do spend most of their money on candidates. Others, such as the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, have spent exactly zero in this election cycle on candidates, even as they raise millions from low-dollar donors.

Whatever their overhead, tea-party-aligned groups are spending tens of millions collectively, sometimes with little or no board oversight. Such groups tend to operate multiple fundraising entities, simultaneously pulling in checks for a 501(c)(3) charity, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, a conventional political action committee subject to contribution limits and an unrestricted super PAC. Public records filed with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission revealed some unusual expenditures.

Full story

February 27, 2014

Facing 140,000 Comments, Treasury Braces for IRS Hearing, Legal Fight

As Treasury officials wade through more than 140,000 public comments on draft IRS rules to redefine permissible political activity by tax-exempt groups, they must now brace for at least one public hearing and a possible legal challenge.

Released last year in response to the scandal triggered by the agency’s overzealous scrutiny of conservative organizations and other advocacy groups, the proposed regulations were assailed on both sides of the aisle as sloppily written and over-broad.

Comments poured into Treasury steadily through the final hours of a Thursday deadline from activists on the left and right, tax and legal experts, academics, advocacy and trade groups of all stripes, and from thousands of ordinary citizens and taxpayers.

Some urged the IRS to police what Democrats call abuses of the tax and campaign finance laws by politically active nonprofits that operate outside the disclosure rules. But most were overwhelmingly critical, attacking the IRS for proposing to define political activity to include voter registration and mobilization, distribution of voter guides and candidate appearances.

“The IRS’s proposed rules would stifle political activity by preventing 501(c)(4) groups from engaging in political speech and voter registration that these groups have engaged in for decades,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of several members of Congress to weigh in. “Given the IRS’ recent targeting of conservative groups based on their political activity, these rules would only further politicize an already troubled agency.”

By contrast, more than a dozen Senate Democrats, led by Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, urged the IRS to “make clear that it is impermissible for political operatives to create what are for all practical purposes PACs, obtain 501(c)(4) status for those PACs, and then spend essentially unlimited money to influence elections without disclosing their donors, as is now common practice.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a leading advocate of campaign finance disclosure, also joined with the watchdog groups Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center in comments urging the IRS to rewrite its rules. The groups’ organizers have long argued that IRS regulations contradict tax laws that require 50(c)(4) organizations to operate “exclusively” for the social welfare.

But many progressive watchdog groups, while commending the agency for tackling existing rules that are widely regarded as subjective and confusing, said the proposed regulations are badly flawed.

A broad coalition of progressives, including civil liberties and environmental organizers, have joined conservative activists in assailing the proposed IRS rules as over-broad and chilling to free speech. Left-leaning activists have in essence told the Treasury Department “thanks, but no thanks” for the IRS rules.

“We would not be happy if the rules as they were initially drafted were finalized,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch and manager of the Bright Lines Project. The project has brought together a team of experts to examine how the IRS may clarify its hazy rules regarding what tax-exempt groups may do politically. Gilbert said the project is “happy that the IRS is tackling this problem” but has urged its allies to voice concerns to Treasury.

The Democratic senators’ comments do caution the IRS not to reach too broadly. The proposed rules are “a step in the right direction,” state the comments, whose authors include Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and New York’s Charles E. Schumer. “However, it is important that nonpartisan activities with social welfare benefits, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, are excluded from the definition of candidate-related political activity.”

Newly installed IRS Commissioner John Koskinen has told members of Congress that the agency will review all public comments with care, and the draft regulations themselves state that the agency will hold a public hearing on request. Koskinen acknowledged at a recent House Appropriations subcommittee hearing that the chances that the rules would be finalized by this fall’s midterm elections are “fairly slim.”

Actually, the rules are broadly regarded as dead on arrival, given the innate challenges of distinguishing legitimate advocacy from overt political activity, and the ongoing uproar over IRS actions in this arena. Several congressional committees continue to investigate the agency’s mishandling of activist groups’ applications for tax exemption, and the House Oversight and Government Reform panel has called former IRS official Lois Lerner to testify again next week.

When Lerner first testified before the committee in May, she denied culpability then immediately invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination. Her attorney has told the panel that she would do so again. But Republicans on the panel are threatening to hold her in contempt of Congress.

Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have renewed their assaults on the agency. The House approved legislation on Wednesday that would bar the IRS for one year from proceeding with its regulations. The Democrat-controlled Senate is not expected to take up that bill, and the Obama administration has threatened to veto it.

But conservative activists are pushing to keep the issue in the spotlight. FreedomWorks announced that it will mobilize its members for a Senate vote on the bill. Conservative activists have promised to sue the administration if it proceeds with the draft IRS regulations as written.

“I think the IRS would have a difficult time [arguing] for these to withstand legal scrutiny,” said Cleta Mitchell, a GOP election lawyer at Foley & Lardner.

February 26, 2014

IRS Uproar Intensifies

As thousands of negative comments flood the Internal Revenue Service on the eve of a Feb. 27 deadline, GOP leaders are moving on several fronts to block the proposed IRS regulations that would curb political activity by tax-exempt groups.

The House has passed legislation that would bar the IRS from issuing new regulations for one year. Also, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has released a letter demanding further testimony from Lois Lerner, the ex-senior IRS official at the heart of an ongoing scandal over the agency’s self-admitted targeting of the Tea Party and other groups seeking tax exemption. Full story

February 4, 2014

Sarbanes Bill Aims to Draw in Small Donors

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Having road-tested a low-dollar fundraising system in his own congressional campaign, Maryland Democrat John Sarbanes wants the entire House to follow suit.

Sarbanes rolls out legislation Wednesday aimed at spurring House candidates to raise money from small donors instead of from the traditional large contributors on Wall Street and K Street. Dubbed the Government By The People Act, the bill would give small donors a $25 refundable tax credit, and match contributions of $150 or less at a rate of six to one, among other provisions.

“We need something that is about empowering the good actors, which are everyday people, and bringing them back to the town square,” said Sarbanes, whose legislation enjoys the backing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and of more than two dozen environmental, labor and other progressive groups. Full story

January 16, 2014

‘Dark’ Corporate Money Bankrolled Tax-Exempt Groups, Report Says

The nation’s top corporations gave more than $185 million in 2012 to tax-exempt groups that spent heavily on politics and lobbying, according to a report released today by the Center for Public Integrity.

The report discloses for the first time the extent to which blue chip companies such as Exelon, Microsoft and WellPoint bankroll the activities of leading trade associations, advocacy groups and think tanks. An investigative journalism nonprofit, the center pored over voluntary disclosures filed by the companies that Fortune magazine ranks as the nation’s top 300.

The seven-month investigation covering the 2012 calendar year identified 1,000 politically active nonprofits underwritten by the corporate expenditures. More than two dozen such groups collected at least $1 million each from corporate givers, the report found. Since tax-exempt groups need not disclose their donors, watchdogs have dubbed their political spending “dark money.” Full story

January 7, 2014

The State of K Street | K Street Files

No one expects a boom in the lobbying business this year. But out of the dysfunction and stalemate of 2013, K Streeters see signs of potential work in select areas, including a revival for an old standby: appropriations.

The bipartisan budget deal (tiny as it may have been) from late last year has given lobbyists cause for hope that a return to regular order on appropriations bills will offer them a legislative vehicle to work on behalf of clients.

Still, for any Hill staffers or soon-to-be-ex-members of Congress eyeing a gig downtown, the hiring scene on K Street will continue to be tight and the competition fierce.

Lobbyists are also trying to woo lawmakers to extend 55 lapsed tax credits. A patent bill, immigration matters, a farm bill, regulatory work and trade policy may also drive business. And K Streeters are looking to set the stage for longer-term overhauls of the nation’s tax code and housing finance system. Full story

December 30, 2013

FEC Vulnerable to Hacking, IG Warns

Deficient computer security at the Federal Election Commission has already led to high-level breaches and puts the agency “at high risk” of continued hacking, according to a federal Inspector General report released this month.

FEC information systems, which in the previous election tracked more than $6 billion in political spending, “have serious internal control vulnerabilities and have been penetrated at the highest levels of the agency,” according to the FEC Inspector General’s final audit for fiscal 2013.

The report, which reiterates security concerns flagged by federal auditors for several years running, identifies two specific, high-level hacking incidents. In May of last year, an adversary identified as an “Advanced Persistent Threat” compromised a commissioner’s personal user account, as well as several FEC systems, for eight months running. Full story

December 18, 2013

The Year in Political Money: Less Transparency, More Deregulation | Rules of the Game

Campaign spending trends were not as sensational this year as in 2012, when super PACs and other outside groups pumped more than $1 billion into politics, three times what they spent in the previous presidential election cycle.

Still, 2013 marked several important political money milestones that signal where campaigns are headed next. Perhaps invariably, elections continue to march toward less transparency and more deregulation, and lawmakers and federal agencies remain too paralyzed by discord to respond.

It was a bad year for disclosure, both on the legislative and regulatory fronts. Congressional Democrats lost no time reintroducing the transparency bill known as the DISCLOSE Act, which had come close to passing in the previous Congress. But the bill was quickly overwhelmed on Capitol Hill by politically charged disputes over immigration, health care and the federal budget.

Advocates of campaign finance limits managed to generate more than 600,000 public comments urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to require corporations to more fully report their political spending. Both the SEC plan and the DISCLOSE Act had set out to shed light on unreported political spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which deregulated independent campaign spending, including by social welfare and trade groups exempt from disclosure rules.

But the SEC backed away from its public disclosure agenda, omitting from its to-do list for 2014 any mention of a corporate disclosure rule that the agency had once flagged as a priority for this year.

Disclosure fared somewhat better in the states, where legislators and election officials in California, New York and elsewhere moved to pull back the curtain on politically active tax-exempt groups, which as a whole spent more than $300 million in the previous election. California’s Fair Political Practices Commission slapped a record $1 million fine on two Arizona nonprofits with ties to the billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch for failing to disclose the donors behind a multimillion-dollar ballot initiative campaign.

At the same time, more than a half-dozen states where unrestricted super PACs have flourished moved to relax limits on contribution to candidates, in part to put them on a more level playing field with outside groups.  Advocates of easing the campaign finance rules also continued their push for federal deregulation, mounting a constitutional challenge to the overall limit on what one individual may give to political parties and candidates in a single election cycle.

Known as McCutcheon v. FEC, the challenge received a receptive audience at the Supreme Court during oral arguments in October. The court’s conservative justices, who continue to hold the majority, cast the aggregate limit as a burden on donors, and some argued that political parties should not face stricter limits than outside groups. If the high court rules that aggregate contribution limits are unconstitutional, watchdogs warn that it would weaken the current ban on unrestricted “soft” money donations to the political parties, and set the stage for yet another challenge to the limits on contributions made directly to candidates.

Politically active nonprofits dominated the headlines in 2013, both because of the scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of tea-party-affiliated groups, and because tax documents filed in November shed long-overdue light on how such groups moved money around last year. Three congressional committees launched IRS investigations this year, which are still ongoing, and several top tax agency officials were ousted or left under pressure.

The agency responded with draft rules aimed at more consistently regulating political activity by tax-exempt groups, but these just dragged the IRS further into controversy. Advocacy groups on both the left and right argue that the IRS restrictions will squelch constitutionally protected voter mobilization and pre-election issue advertising campaigns. Democrats say the rules are long overdue and should probably go further.

The FEC, in the meantime, had another roller-coaster year. In April the agency, down one commissioner, earned a dubious distinction: All five of its remaining commissioners were serving expired terms. The Senate confirmed two new commissioners this fall, a Democrat and a Republican, who came in with pledges to work together and issue long-overdue FEC regulations for the post-Citizens United campaign world. But so far there’s no sign that FEC deadlocks or backlogs have disappeared.

It all sets the stage for yet another round of highly contentious campaign finance fights in 2014, which is already shaping up as a high-stakes midterm that will feature plenty of undisclosed, unrestricted money. If 2013 is any indication, the next wave of big money will draw plenty of headlines but little regulatory response.

December 9, 2013

More Headaches Ahead for Tax-Exempt Groups?

Thirteen months after Election Day, the politically active nonprofits that spent more than $300 million in the 2012 campaigns without disclosing their donors are back in the news.

Many of the biggest spenders submitted their 990 tax forms to the IRS on Nov. 15, offering a revealing glimpse into just how politically minded these supposed social welfare groups were. Filers included the election-focused social welfare groups Crossroads GPS, founded by GOP operative Karl Rove; Americans for Prosperity underwritten by the conservative Koch brothers; and Priorities USA, organized by backers of President Barack Obama.

The 990 forms do not list the names of big donors but have nonetheless triggered several eye-opening investigations that illuminate just how such “dark money” groups operate. ProPublica detailed how Crossroads GPS spent at least $85.7 million on politics, despite having reported a far smaller sum to the IRS — $74 million. The difference is largely explained by an $11.2 million Crossroads grant to Americans for Tax Reform, which spent the money on campaigns, the report found.

The Center for Responsive Politics continued its “Shadow Money Trail” series with several updates showing, among other findings, that one in four “dark money” dollars went to groups with links to billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch. The CRP also examined the Crossroads GPS grant.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington recently complained to the IRS and the Department of Justice that ATR spent more than half its money on politics, not social welfare, and that the group provided false information to the tax agency. ATR organizers call the allegations baseless and say they have complied with the law.

Amid all this, the Treasury Department and the IRS have proposed new rules defining “candidate-related political activity” for 501(c)(4) social welfare groups, triggering a wave of alarm across the nonprofit sector. Advocates of tighter campaign finance restrictions have hailed the move, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and his allies have dropped their lawsuit demanding that the IRS issue new regulations.

But advocacy groups on the left and right object to provisions that would define election eve ads that identify a candidate, along with voter mobilization, as political activity. Public comments have already started coming in, including from the Center for Competitive Politics. The agency has struggled for decades to explain what social welfare groups may or may not do on the political front. Tax law says they should be “exclusively” for the public welfare, while IRS regulations say their “primary” focus should be the public good.

Defining what’s permitted will draw still more controversy to an agency already under fire for its mishandling of applications for exemption from the tea party and other groups. And political money may soon be migrating elsewhere in any case, campaign finance and tax experts said last week at a panel hosted by the Center for Responsive Politics. Indeed, politically active nonprofits are under pressure on more fronts than just the IRS. Full story

December 6, 2013

Van Hollen and Allies Drop IRS Suit

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Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Now that the IRS has drafted new rules to rein in politically active tax-exempt groups, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and three allied watchdog groups have withdrawn their lawsuit challenging the tax agency to take action.

“The major relief we asked for in the lawsuit was for the IRS to conduct a rulemaking,” said the Maryland Democrat, who filed the suit in August with Democracy 21, Public Citizen and the Campaign Legal Center. Last week, the Treasury Department and the IRS initiated that process, inviting public comment on proposed rules to define “candidate-related political activity” for 501(c)(4) social welfare groups. Full story

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