The tidal wave of big-money donations flowing into politics these days is alarming. But the wave's lack of transparency is appalling.
If voters are to have confidence in the integrity of the political process, they need to know where all this money is coming from. Requiring such disclosure is quite different from barring spending, which the Supreme Court rightly has held to be an infringement on free speech.
Unfortunately, a ton of money is being funneled through charities, which needn't disclose their donors -- unlike political candidates or political action committees, including super PACs. Under federal law, charities aren't supposed to have politics as their main mission, even if some kinds of nonprofits can engage in more politics than others. Despite these rules, tax-exempt nonprofits this year will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on political ads.
Something's amiss here. Not only is there a lack of transparency, but people who give to charities get a tax deduction, which in effect allows them to use taxpayer funds to subsidize their political speech.
Unfortunately, the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service seem to be looking the other way. That's why we're watching with interest the actions of New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who has begun probing contributions to, and political spending by, nonprofits.
New York attorneys general have a tradition of identifying national issues that cry out for investigation. Notably, Schneiderman, an ambitious Democrat, has already been looking into the activities of the nation's big banks leading up to the financial crisis.
As to nonprofits, Schneiderman has begun by issuing a subpoena for records from the National Chamber Foundation to determine whether it provided millions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business group, for political activities around 2004.
New York law gives the state's attorney general the power to police any nonprofit that raises money in the state, as so many do. Thus, once again, a federal failure to investigate leaves the field to our state's top cop.