Obama's misguided move into the 'social welfare' group murk

March 4, 2013 

The following editorial, excerpted here, appeared in Monday’s Washington Post:

Blithely ignoring his own past warnings, President Obama is wading ever deeper into a campaign and politics quagmire filled with potential hazard for his second term. He ought to come to his senses. If he doesn’t, it won’t be easy to clean this muck off his shoes later on.

The president’s team has formed Organizing for Action, a group intended to advance his priorities using the potent grass-roots technology and troops from his re-election campaign. According to a summary prepared for donors and reported by The Post, this includes 2.2 million volunteers, 33 million Facebook friends, 22 million Twitter followers and 17 million email subscribers. We see nothing wrong with that.

But how the Obama people are going about it stinks. They have registered the group as a 501(c) 4 organization, under a section of the Internal Revenue Code that provides tax-exempt status for “social welfare” organizations, a broad category originally envisioned for civic leagues and the like that has become a favored dark alley for political operators. Such groups are not required to disclose donors or amounts of contributions, as they would be if they operated under the rules of the Federal Elections Commission. As “social welfare” groups, they must pledge that their work is not “primarily” electoral politics, but that has been left ill-defined by tax authorities.

These “social welfare” groups seemed to blossom in the last election cycle, with Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS at the forefront. Big money given in secret is a corrupting influence on our politics. But it is even more worrisome for a sitting president to be fielding such a group. It seems to be an open invitation to donors who want influence on policy decisions.

Judging by recent reports, Organizing for Action should be renamed Paying for Access. The Obama team has been talking about raising half the group’s money through $500,000 donations from the president’s top supporters. They will apparently be offered a spot on an advisory board with the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president. The White House has confirmed that while the president and his aides won’t directly raise money for the group, they will appear at its events. That will give big donors the chance to ask Obama about a pet project or appointment.

Moreover, Obama’s team says that donations will not be listed precisely; rather, they will be listed but rather “in ranges.” This affords the donors a useful veil.

The president was the one who a few years ago warned us of “a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics.” Now Obama seems to be leading the stampede.

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