"Special interests are planning and running millions of dollars" in ads, warns President Barack Obama. But despite their "benign-sounding names," adds Democratic operative David Axelrod, some of them are "front groups for foreign-controlled companies." Together, they are trying to sway the outcome of elections all across America.
Want examples? No problem.
In 2012 alone, Toyota spent $2 billion in the hope that Americans would elect to buy Toyotas rather than Fords, Chevrolets, or Hondas. Samsung, a South Korean multinational conglomerate, spent $881 million. Walmart spent huge sums to sell you on buying goods made in China.
Hoping more Americans will elect to use renewable energy, environmental groups have been cranking out sunny brochures and op/ed columns pitching its merits. Among those who stand to benefit the most: Chinese solar-cell makers and German wind-turbine manufacturers.
Obviously, these aren't the interests Obama and Axelrod had in mind when they made those comments four years ago, after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. They meant groups like Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, and other "outside groups." In that, they spoke for many liberal Democrats—and even some Republicans, like Sen. John McCain—who don't like such groups speaking out on politics.
Little wonder, then, that since the IRS scandal broke Republicans and their conservative supporters have been looking for the smoking gun that would prove Obama ordered the agency to seek and destroy conservative social-welfare groups. The U.S. has a long and sordid history of presidents trying to sic the IRS on their political foes; that was even one of the charges of impeachment against Richard Nixon.
In this case, however, the GOP's Obama Derangement Syndrome might be pointing it in the wrong direction. Granted, the administration did laughably appoint an Obama campaign donor to investigate whether Obama critics had been treated fairly. But much of the impetus for the IRS' abuse of conservative groups seems to have come from Congress.
That becomes apparent from a complaint filed this month with the Senate's ethics committee by the Center for Competitive Politics. The complaint asks the committee to investigate Sens. Carl Levin, Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer, Al Franken, and several others for improperly trying to sway IRS deliberations and obtain confidential taxpayer information.
Admittedly, asking the Democrat-controlled committee to investigate Democrats for targeting Republican-leaning groups is a Quixotic pursuit. But Quixotic is not the same as meritless. And the complaint contains mountains of merit.
The complaint details several letters Levin wrote to the IRS in which he insisted that "a message needs to be sent" to social-welfare groups "on an urgent basis," and that the message should make it "crystal clear" they needed to restrict their political activities. Just so the IRS would not misunderstand, he drew attention to two TV advertisements—one by Crossroads GPS and another by Patriot Majority USA.
Unsatisfied by the IRS response, Levin continued to press the agency to give such groups—which are organized under Section 501(c)4) of the tax code—"a choice: either lose their exempt status (and pay taxes) or eliminate the partisan political activity." He followed that up with a demand to see confidential information about Crossroads GOP, Priorities USA, Americans for Prosperity, and Patriot Majority USA. Informed that "the IRS cannot legally disclose" what he wanted, he tried again—and again. As the ethics complaint notes, "IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller acknowledged in an interview that Senator Levin's effort did, in fact, have an effect on the IRS' internal proceedings."
Durbin not only demanded that the IRS investigate groups he didn't care for—he boasted about it in news releases that drew the attention of the media. No wonder: Durbin made the demand a month before the fall congressional elections. Subtle!
Schumer, Franken, and Co. also wrote to the IRS, wondering—purely out of idle curiosity, you understand—whether the agency "is investigating or intends to investigate" whether certain groups might be engaging in—gasp!—"campaign activity." Which groups? Oh, "Elections operations such as Mr. (Karl) Rove's." They followed that up a month later with a request that the IRS change the rules governing social-welfare nonprofits.
This past January, Schumer gave a speech denouncing "the great advantage the tea party has," namely "the huge holes in our campaign-finance system" that allowed 501(c)(4) groups to spend "millions in undisclosed dollars" on "ads that distort the truth and attack government." To whom did he give this speech? The Center for American Progress Action Fund, a 501(c)4) organization. Now that's chutzpah.
But sometimes chutzpah pays off. As everyone now knows, the IRS did launch a pogrom against conservative groups—not just the big ones, like Rove's, but many much smaller ones as well. For months it harassed them with intrusive questionnaires demanding everything from Facebook posts to the contents of prayers said at meetings.
And remember what terrible offense those groups were committing: They were supporting or opposing candidates for public office, often by buying TV ad time. But a political advertisement cannot make you vote for or against a political candidate any more than a commercial advertisement can make you buy a Toyota instead of a Ford. What Levin, Durbin, Schumer, et al. find outrageous is the fact that some Americans have been speaking about political candidates without those candidates' authorization.
Indeed, some Democratic congressmen find that so outrageous they would like to amend the Constitution. News stories have referred to the amendment as the "Democrats' answer to the Koch Brothers." But the amendment would not apply only to the Kochs. It would allow politicians to ration political speech by everyone. That would be like letting Ford decide which companies get to advertise cars on TV. How many ads for Toyotas would you see in that case? Take a wild guess.