The Light on Dark Political Money Dims

If you want to minimize the risk of your anonymous donation to a political group going public, Treasury is on your side. Photo: Pineapple Studio/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a ruling that seems attuned to the Obama-era conservative conspiracy theories about IRS persecution of conservative non-profit political advocacy groups, the U.S. Treasury today relieved 501(c)(4) organizations of their obligation to disclose donors to tax authorities. These are groups that do not themselves pay taxes, as opposed to 501(c)(3) organizations (usually called charities), which can in addition offer a tax deduction to donors for their contributions.

Under the previous policy (which had been in place for many years), these groups do not have to publicly disclose donors, and even when the IRS releases tax returns, they redact the donor lists (though there was one case involving the big-time GOP group Crossroads GPS in which they unaccountably failed to do so). But hey, if you hate the tax man you hate the tax man, and even though the tax man now reports to Donald Trump, there have been fears of media leaks.

Progressives tend to look at the non-disclosure of donors and see “dark money,” the sources of which are hidden for nefarious reasons, including illegal contributors (e.g., foreign citizens or entities — a concern raised by Senator Ron Wyden), conflicts of interest, or revelations of the sheer power of very small groups of people. Conservatives look at the same issue and tend to worry about the persecution of wealthy people by class warriors in and out of government.

In any event, the change is a nudge rather than a shove in the direction of making dark money darker, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in promulgating the new policy:

The same information about tax-exempt organizations that was previously available to the public will continue to be available, while private taxpayer information will be better protected.

The two parties will continue to differ as to whether this last consideration is a good thing or another brick in a wall of privileged access to the political system.

The Light on Dark Political Money Dims