On Sept. 23, The New York Times published an article critical of a nonprofit group called Americans for Job Security. AJS functions as a front group for a network of mainly anonymous politicians and consultants who wish to take advantage of campaign finance standards that allow unlimited contributions through nonprofit organizations.
However, the Supreme Court ruled in January that nonprofit organizations retain the right to donate unlimited funds to campaigns. A dilemma now results. How can the rights of these organizations and their members balance with Americans’ interest in a transparent and egalitarian government?
The basic claim behind the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was that monetary donations are a form of political speech. For this reason, the use of money in elections must hold to the judicial standard of strict scrutiny, which says any government action restricting free speech must further a “compelling interest” and be “narrowly tailored” to do so. The Supreme Court found the government unable to prove a strong and focused interest to outweigh the use of nonprofit money in politics. Therefore, the legality of campaign donations from nonprofits has to be recognized.
Yet the challenge presented by The New York Times remains valid. The front group, AJS, with only one employee somehow managing up to $7 million annually in donations, needs more regulation and oversight from the government. A group shuttling money anonymously to political campaigns unquestionably harms free speech, as the donors and mechanisms by which money transfers between parties have little accountability. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruling leaves the door open for such exploitation.
The compromise lies in the disclosure of campaign contributions. The government has a much more compelling case with disclosure to pass the standard of strict scrutiny used by a libertarian-leaning Supreme Court. Requiring full disclosure of nonprofit donors parallels with the general idea that when delivering most any other form of political speech, the audience knows the identity of the speaker.
Furthermore, disclosure would combat and reduce corruption by allowing government access to donor records. Next, disclosure would truly make nonprofits advocacy groups, as manipulative donors would shy away. Finally, disclosure would promote a uniform standard across nonprofit groups, increasing the equality before the law valued so highly in the United States legal system. Through these compelling interests, stringent disclosure requirements would pass the Supreme Court muster.
Nothing is simple in American politics, however. On Friday, a Democratic Senate bill with disclosure rules failed to win any GOP votes. Why? The measure exempted major labor organizations from stricter disclosure, and was ripe for GOP election-year politicking. A path to bipartisan campaign finance reform remains open, but real-world politics continue to muddy the waters. No waters will clear in this heated and changeful electoral season, and so the campaign finance debate will continue.
Pearce Edwards is a sophomore political science major from Albuquerque, N.M.