Political Animal


May 13, 2013 11:17 AM 527, 501(c)(4), Whatever

By Ed Kilgore

One of the issues the IRS “scandal” over 501(c)(4) scrutiny is already running into head-on is massive confusion about the relationship between these entities, which to an extent unimaginable just a few years ago are engaged in heavy electoral campaign activities, and the so-called 527 “Super-PAC” organizations. The former don’t have to disclose donor identities, but cannot “primarily” be involved in “political activity,” and also can’t explictly promote candidacies. The latter do have to disclose donors, but have no limits on election activities and can also explicitly promote or oppose candidates so long as they don’t “coordinate” efforts with an actual campaign.

The confusion is nicely illustrated by a new ad running right now on the “scandal” that is competing for oxygen with the IRS issue, Benghazi!. Here’s John Avlon’s report at the Daily Beast:

Less than five months after Barack Obama began his second term, the 2016 presidential campaign kicked off this weekend with a Benghazi-themed attack ad that takes direct aim at Hillary Clinton.

The 90-second web ad, called “Benghazi”, was issued by the Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads, which spent more than $21 million in the last election cycle. It is the freshest evidence that hyperpartisan super-PAC slush funds are now a core part of the permanent campaign.
This American Crossroads ad matters because of its unsubtle purpose: a preemptive strike against a potential Clinton presidential campaign in 2016. Remember that through 2008, Clinton was widely considered the most polarizing figure in American politics. The days of Hillary as Republicans’ favorite member of the Obama cabinet are over. This dynamic was unlikely to the point of absurdity—a case of political amnesia brought on by a combination of her voting record in the Senate and the ’08 campaign-era conviction that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Now it seems this ad is the product of the American Crossroads 527, though there is nothing about it that would prohibit its distribution by the American Crossroads GPS 501(c)(4), assuming it didn’t exceed that group’s budget for “political activity,” an exceptionally hazy concept to begin with. But it’s hard to distinguish the two groups: Steven J. Law heads both of them, and both were established by Karl Rove. It’s a token of the confusion, BTW, that Avlon seems shocked that American Crossroads spent “$21 million” in the last election cycle. He was actually looking at the 2010 numbers; in 2012, American Crossroads (the 527) actually spent $104 million, while Crossroads GPS spent another $70 million.

Do you think any of these fine distinctions are going to be commonly understood in the brouhaha over the “IRS scandal?” Fat chance of that. Most rank-and-file Republicans are going to be given the impression that we are talking about IRS auditors hassling and intimidating them. It could not be further from the truth, but I doubt seriously the GOP and the conservative movement—including such “innocent parties” as American Crossroads and American Crossroads GPS—are going to be interested in conducting a national seminar on tax and campaign finance laws.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on May 13, 2013 11:37 AM:

    In politics, as practiced by Republicans, "The scandal's, the thing."

    Whether there's anything behind it, is unimportant. The scandal is, itself, all that's important.

    What never fails to make me ROFLMAO, is that whenever Republicans want to gin-up some trouble for Democratic Presidents, they always refer back to genuine Republican scandals - over the first of which, Watergate, their President got impeached, and over the other one, Iran-Contra, is one where their President should have gotten impeached.

    They never go back to the Gulf of Tonkin.

    Or, to "The BJ Heard 'Round the World!" And with Bill Clinton still being popular, they sure as hell don't want to relive that fiasco of an impeachment, over a private sexual liaison.

    Nope, it's always either Watergate, or Iran-Contra (sometimes combined, and then in multiples - like, oh... say... TEN!!!).

    Conservatives/Republicans, are "Scandal Junkies."

    And if the Democrats don't provide them with a heroin-grade Republican scandal, they'll do with whatever methadone they can come across.

  • Patrice Brown on May 13, 2013 11:43 AM:

    Thank You for speaking the Truth about the GOP! The rest of the Press needs to be Free to Challenge this Latest GOP Garbage Distraction and Focus on GOP Seequestration Cuts to Headstart, Meals on Wheels, and Red State Governors and Legislatures cutting services for the least able to bear cuts!

  • Tom on May 13, 2013 1:55 PM:

    How does American Crossroads differ from the politically active campaign OFA - Organizning For Action now spun off as Organizing For America? Organizing for America hols a tax exempt status.

  • Tom on May 13, 2013 2:02 PM:

    In addition, what has MoveOn.org spent on political campaigning and activism in the last two election cycles, but taking advantage of a tax exempt status? They split into two groups. MoveOn PAC is tax exempt. Do you all ever do any basic research before calling the kettle black?

  • Tired Liberal on May 13, 2013 4:05 PM:

    Every individual who testifies at the endless hearings that will be coming up should use them as attempt to spotlight what a confusing mess the Supreme Court has made of campaign finance. It will quickly become clear that everything is so muddled right now that it is next to impossible for a civil service employee to determine what is or is not a "tax exempt educational" organization.

    I understand that Republicans/conservatives would prefer that liberals unilaterally disarm and leave all of this "education" activity to conservative organizations, but as long as the conservatives are taking advantage of them it is necessary for liberals to respond. I will hold my nose and donate to Organizing for America.

  • Tom on May 13, 2013 5:15 PM:

    @tired liberal
    MoveOnPac was established in 1999. American Crossroads GPS/PAC was established in 2010. The idea that republicans or conservatives are the ones that have been "taking advantage" of the tax exempt status of a PAC is absurd. You have it backwards. The conservatives had to get on the band wagon after watching Georg Soros (among others) sink literally billions of dollars into politicians coffers over the last several years.