Rule Change to Obscure Political Campaign Contributions Narrowly Avoided at FEC (2024)



Proposed by a Trump-nominated FEC member, the rule would’ve supercharged the flow of dark money in political campaigns.

Jon Queally,
Rule Change to Obscure Political Campaign Contributions Narrowly Avoided at FEC (1)

All three Republican members of the Federal Election Commission on Thursday voted in favor of a new rule change that would have made it even easier for right-wing megadonors to hide their political campaign contributions from public view.

While the three Democratic members forced a deadlocked vote that prevented passage of the proposal, pro-democracy watchdogs said the unanimous vote by the Republican-appointed members shows the powerful commitment by GOP forces to increase the ability for wealthy individuals and corporate interests to mask their political giving.

FEC chairman Sean Cooksey was joined by his two Republican colleagues Allen Dickerson and James “Trey” Trainor III in backing the measure, but all three Democrats — Commissioners Shana Broussard, Dara Lindenbaum, and vice chair Ellen Weintraub — voted against to nullify it.

The proposal, Sludge reported earlier this week, would “supercharge” the flow of so-called “dark money” in political campaigns and was proposed by Dickerson, a Trump-nominated member who “previously worked at an anti-campaign finance regulation organization funded by conservative political megadonors.”

Dickerson’s proposed rule change, per the FEC, would have allowed advocacy groups or campaigns to “withhold, redact, or modify contributors’ identifying information in campaign finance disclosure reports” — reports currently mandated so that the public is made aware of who is funding such organizations.

Ahead of the vote, Scott Greytak, director of advocacy for Transparency International U.S., said the implications if it passed would reach far beyond the United States.

“With half of the world’s population living in countries that will hold a nationwide vote this year, the United States must embody and exemplify the importance of transparent and informed elections,” Greytak said in a statement opposing the proposal. “As democracy faces its biggest test yet around the world, it is difficult to believe that the world’s oldest democracy is even considering further eroding the public’s right to know who is influencing their elections.”

In a May 2 memo detailing his argument in favor of exempting donors from mandated disclosure requirements, Dickerson claims it is “a Constitutional right” because “Americans are entitled to make political contributions without being attacked, threatened, or fired.”

In view of such arguments, which right-wing forces have made for some time, Stuart McPhail, director of campaign finance litigation with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), has explained why such bad-faith misdirection is an effort to obscure what’s really going on.

While it’s true that some groups historically were granted exemptions for donor disclosures — including the NAACP and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whose supporters and members faced coordinated, state-sponsored violence due to their political activities — claims like the one Dickerson makes, McPhail contends, fails on various merits.

“Campaign finance disclosure does not subject any viewpoint to discriminatory burdens,” McPhail explained in a 2022 blog post. “Rather, the aim of the laws has nothing to do with expression at all: they target transfers of wealth that could be and are used to corruptly influence officials, defraud voters and undermine democracy. Rather than state-sponsored suppression, dark money funders face criticism from concerned and less powerful citizens.”

It should be clear, he continued, that powerful “Dark money groups, their donors, and the candidates are trying to evade responsibility, not prevent retaliation.” When people like Dickerson make such moves, argued McPhail, they are trying to help groups and their allies “to avoid accountability by hiding their donors and silencing critics who may speak out against them.”

This is why Thursday’s votes in favor of such a proposal, said Craig Holman, Ph.D., a government ethics expert with Public Citizen, should be viewed with alarm.

“Commissioners of the FEC, regardless of party affiliation, have always defended the need for disclosure of campaign money sources — until now,” Holman said following the 3-3 vote. “Preventing the disclosure of the sources of political spending would deprive voters of critical information and undermine the essential need for checks on monetary power. It is truly disturbing to see half of the Commission now undermining that core principle, which is so important to an open democratic society.”

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Rule Change to Obscure Political Campaign Contributions Narrowly Avoided at FEC (2024)


What contributions are prohibited by the FEC? ›

Federal law prohibits contributions, donations, expenditures(including independent expenditures) and disbursem*nts solicited, directed, received or made directly or indirectly by or from foreign nationals in connection with any federal, state or local election.

What did the Tillman Act of 1907 do? ›

The Act prohibited monetary contributions to federal candidates by corporations and nationally chartered (interstate) banks. An Act to prohibit corporations from making money contributions in connection with political elections.

Should concealing the source of any campaign contribution be illegal? ›

It is a violation for persons to conceal their identities by contributing through another person without proper disclosure. Concealing the true identity of a donor is a serious violation.

Does limiting campaign contributions from corporations violate the First Amendment? ›

In the landmark case Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court established the framework for evaluating the constitutionality of such laws. According to the Court, limits on campaign contributions and expenditures implicate rights of political expression and association under the First Amendment.

What cannot contribute funds to a political campaign? ›

National banks and federally chartered corporations, such as federal savings and loan associations, are prohibited from making contributions in connection with state and local as well as federal elections.

What is an earmarked contribution to the FEC? ›

An earmarked contribution is a contribution that the contributor directs (either orally or in writing) to a clearly identified candidate or authorized committee through an intermediary or conduit.

Why was there a ban on corporate campaign contributions in 1907? ›

As early as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the need for campaign finance reform and called for legislation to ban corporate contributions for political purposes. In response, Congress enacted several statutes between 1907 and 1966.

What is the Federal Corrupt Practices Act 1910? ›

It was the first federal law to require public disclosure of spending by political parties, but not candidates, by requiring national committees of political parties to file post-election reports on their contributions to individual candidates and their own expenditures.

When were corporations allowed to donate to political campaigns? ›

First, in January 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditure for political purposes.

What is dark money in government? ›

In politics, particularly the politics of the United States, dark money refers to spending to influence elections, public policy, and political discourse, where the source of the money is not disclosed to the public.

Which act banned unlimited donations to campaigns and political parties? ›

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 ( Pub. L. Tooltip Public Law (United States) 107–155 (text) (PDF), 116 Stat. 81, enacted March 27, 2002, H.R.

Can federal employees donate to political campaigns? ›

May assist in voter registration drives. May participate in nonpartisan campaigns. May contribute money to political campaigns, political parties, or partisan political groups. May attend political fundraising functions.

Do limits on campaign contributions violate free speech? ›

21-12, (U.S. May 16, 2022) (holding that a FECA limit on the amount of post-election campaign contributions that may be used to repay a candidate for personal loans made pre-election violates the First Amendment, determining that the limit did not serve the governmental interest of avoiding quid pro quo candidate ...

Does the First Amendment protect lobbying? ›

While most people think of lobbyists only as paid professionals, there are also many independent, volunteer lobbyists—all of whom are protected by the same First Amendment. Lobbying involves much more than persuading legislators.

What is the First Amendment standard of review for campaign contribution limits? ›

Contribution limits are subject to lower scrutiny because they primarily implicate the First Amendment rights of association, not expression, and contributors remain able to vindicate their associational interest in other ways." As such, the court held that aggregate limits do not regulate money spent to influence the ...

What is regulated by the FEC? ›

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) oversees the enforcement of laws specified under FECA by: Setting campaign contribution limits for individuals and groups. Overseeing public funding used in presidential elections. Tracking campaign finance data.

What is an in-kind contribution to the FEC? ›

An in-kind contribution is a non-monetary contribution. Goods or services offered free or at less than the usual charge result in an in-kind contribution. Similarly, when a person or entity pays for services on the committee's behalf, the payment is an in-kind contribution.

Does the FEC collect data on campaign contributions? ›

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) collects and disseminates data submitted by campaign committees, candidates, political party committees, political action committees and other filers.

Are federal employees allowed to donate to political campaigns? ›

May contribute money to political campaigns, political parties, or partisan political groups. May attend political fundraising functions. May attend political rallies and meetings.

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