The Federal Election Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a request by the Tea Party Leadership Fund to be exempted from campaign disclosure laws based on alleged “sustained harassment and severe hostility” to Tea Party activists by the federal government and the general public. Draft advisory opinions suggest some members of the six-member Commission may be seriously considering granting the request.
Federal law requires predominantly political groups, including political action committees and super PACs, to publicly disclose the donors who contribute more than $200 per campaign cycle. Tea Party Leadership Fund, which operates both as a traditional PAC and as an independent-expenditure-only super PAC, is currently required to reveal the large contributors to both of those segregated funds. But the courts have ruled that certain “small, persecuted groups whose very existence depended on some manner of anonymity” can be exempted from these kinds of disclosure rules. The most famous examples of this are the tiny Socialist Workers Party, which received less than $20,000 over the past four year and has elected zero candidates in partisan elections since 1948, the NAACP in the segregated south. The Commission has repeatedly voted to exempt the Socialist Workers Party from disclosure laws based on its view that “the governmental interest in obtaining the names, addresses, and other identifying information of SWP contributors and vendors doing business with the SWP committees in connection with Federal elections” is very low and is “outweighed by the reasonable probability of threats, harassment, or reprisals resulting from such disclosure.”
Citing this example, the Tea Party Leadership Fund believes it should also be exempted from disclosure rules. Though the group has raised more than $1.2 million since its formation in 2012 and has helped elect more than a dozen current members of Congress, TPLF claims that because it is not part of the two-party structure, the public interest for transparency is similarly diminished. Arguing that Tea Party activists in general and its supporters in particular have been subject to harassment by the Internal Revenue Service, criticism by the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats, and violence from the general public, its “ability to continue exercising its fundamental First Amendment rights is now in jeopardy.” It requests that not only its donors be shielded from disclosure, but that the same exemption also be granted to even its vendors and creditors.
Far from the sort of small group that has previously been exempted, the Tea Party movement has elected dozens of members of Congress, helped force a government shutdown, and enjoys the support of nearly a quarter of the voting public.
The TPLF included more than 1,400 pages of media reports and other examples of the threats, harassment, and reprisals against Tea Party activists in recent years. While some of these allegations include death threats, arson, and vandalism directed at activists, many amount to little more than political criticism of the group’s agenda. The litany of complaints by the TPLF include that Vice President Joe Biden said the Tea Party movement demonstrates “no care of the consequences to the economy” from its agenda, that Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) opined that the Tea Party agenda aims to “dismantle the American government,” and that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) suggested that the Tea Party movement “can go straight to Hell.” But under this standard, nearly any controversial political group or candidate would also have to be exempted from disclosure laws. A California political candidate joked in 2010 that he would like to issue hunting permits for liberals — and one Mitt Romney supporter allegedly ran over her husband because he did not vote for her favored candidate.
Mary Boyle, vice president for communications at Common Cause, told ThinkProgress that the examples claimed by TPLF do not come close to meriting exemption. “Our politics have gotten increasingly polarized, increasingly bitter, increasingly personal. Politics is a nasty business,” she observed, noting that name calling does not come close to the “kind of level of intimidation and tactics that were used 40 to 50 years ago” against the NAACP. Boyle added that even in the Supreme Court’s 5 to-4 Citizens United ruling that created the current campaign finance “Wild Wild West,” eight of the nine Justices agreed that disclosure is vital for voters to make an informed decision.
Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress that this could set up a slippery slope. “If what the Tea Party Leadership Fund has presented as evidence of harassment is sufficient to warrant exemption from fed disclosure laws,” he reasoned, “it is difficult to imagine why the Democratic and Republican Parties wouldn’t likewise be eligible for exemptions. This is standard political discourse… not harassment.” Much of what the group presented “as so-called evidence of harassment,” Ryan added, “was nothing more than public officials and other members of the public exercising their First Amendment right to engage in vigorous debate. It is ironic that a Tea Party organization would try to kill that kind of public discourse around politics.”
With two new members of the evenly-split Commission, this vote will be a key test of whether the FEC will continue to be dysfunctional or will actually enforce the few campaign finance laws still on the books.
With newly appointed Republican Vice Chairman Lee Goodman recusing himself, the Commission voted 3 to 2 to reject the Tea Party Leadership Fund’s request for exemption from virtually all disclosure laws. Republican Commissioners Caroline C. Hunter and Matthew S. Petersen voted in favor of the group’s request. The exemption would have required four votes to pass.