The Trump Executive Order and IRS Politics

May 9, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

President Trump’s Executive Order to relieve religious organizations of regulatory limits on their political activities came and went with little stir. It was widely seem to be lacking in content. David French, writing in The National Review, was harsher, pronouncing it "worse than useless."

Aimed at the Johnson Amendment, the Order directs the Secretary of the Treasury not to take "any adverse action" against a 501(c) organization speaking on political issues "from a religious perspective." But commentators correctly observed that an Executive Order cannot undo a statute, and that the Order confines its directives to actions by the Secretary "to the extent permitted by law" or "consistent with law." Translated into its simplest terms, the Order requires the Secretary to do what he can if the law allows it, and because the law in question is the Johnson Amendment, then the President has, in effect, demanded that the Secretary ease restrictions “to the extent permitted” by the Johnson Amendment. This is an unusual way of taking on the Amendment.

But if we look beyond the murky conception behind the Order and its somewhat tortuous wording, and consider what it might mean in practice, then it seems more consequential--at least in the next four years.

Nate Persily of Stanford Law is emerging as the leading authority on the effect of the internet and social media on political campaigns.  His recent article in the Journal of Democracy displays Persily’s strengths: deep research, clarity of exposition and a grasp of what is significant in the messy world of facts. He is unmistakably alarmed: indeed, in interviews, he has said so.  Persily fears that a ruthless marriage of technology to “fake news” can destroy the prospects for responsible democratic deliberation.

Where does this discussion of fake news go from here, and what are the pitfalls? Professor Persily notes that the dominant Internet platforms are moving toward policies to help readers locate the bona fide news items. Facebook now works with traditional media organizations and fact-checking enterprises to “flag” dubious stories. Some readers will accept this role, as a responsible exercise of power, while others will see it as an expansion of great market power. Or, in Persily’s words:

[Market] power far in excess of that which legacy media institutions had in their heyday, let alone today. Especially in an environment in which the regulated speech—whether hate speech, fake news, or otherwise—tends to predominate on one side of the political spectrum, they cannot escape the charge that their new rules are biased either in intent or in effect.

Persily makes clear that the issues are complex but he sees large questions of policy to which answers are required if we are to have “integrity” of information on which democratic debate depends.

The FEC will be defending the “structure” of the contribution limits this week in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case, Holmes v. Federal Election Commission, tests the constitutionality of the "per election" limits as applied to a donor’s choice to participate only in the one--the general--election. If a donor skips a primary, and wishes only to contribute in the general, she now cannot give the full amount allowed for the election cycle cycle, $5400, but only half of that: $2700, the "per election" limit for the general.  The Holmes plaintiffs’ point is that this bifurcation of the limits serves no legitimate anti-corruption purpose. Donors do not potentially corrupt candidates in the primary, or the general, or a run-off: the corruption, if it occurs, is the result of the amounts given through the date that the candidate is elected to office, after which the new officeholder is in a position to return the favor. And the limit Congress settled on to serve this anticorruption interest is the combined allowance for the cycle, $5400, a point that the Supreme Court stressed in McCutcheon.

The problem presented by the bifurcation of the limits is worsened by the messiness of its application. Incumbents and other largely unopposed candidates do well under this system, collecting money for primaries they don’t have to compete in and transferring the money to their general election accounts. Both the candidates in this position and their donors are aware that the money being given to the “primary” is really for the “general.” And a candidate can collect a contribution designated for the general election before the primary election is decided, provided that the candidate escrows the money and does not spend it until after the date of the primary. In this case, the candidate has, in fact, accepted a full cycle contribution of $5400 prior to the general election. It may be subject to a restriction on when it is spent, but the donor looking to make an impression, with a full cycle’s worth of contributions before the primary, will have done so.  Or, knowing that a primary candidate is closing in on victory, a donor can give the full primary election amount the day before the primary, and the full general election amount the day after, with confidence that he or she has given $5400 for the general election.

And add to all this that by FEC rule, an opposed candidate who, by operation of state law is not even on the ballot may still raise a "primary" or "general" election contribution in the full amount. The regulation reads:

A primary or general election which is not held because a candidate is unopposed or received a majority of votes in a previous election is a separate election for the purposes of the limitations on contributions of this section. The date on which the election would have been held shall be considered to be the date of the election.

11 C.F.R. 110.1(j)(3).

The New York Times has carried two pieces in the last days on the Internet politics, each making a case for its contribution to degraded democracy. Michael Birnbaum writes about the influence of rightist websites in Europe as both the Netherlands and France head into national elections. Tom Edsall adds a thoughtful, more academic note, interviewing scholars and citing to various studies that generally reinforce a dark message about “democracy, disrupted.”   The Edsall analysis also takes on the question of whether this disruption plays favorites, helping more the left or the right, and he concludes as follows:

There is good reason to think that the disruptive forces at work in the United States — as they expand the universe of the politically engaged and open the debate to millions who previously paid little or no attention — may do more to damage the left than strengthen it. In other words, just as the use of negative campaign ads and campaign finance loopholes to channel suspect contributions eventually became routine, so too will be the use of social media to confuse and mislead the electorate.
This is a significant coupling of concerns about the uses of social media with two of the prominent planks in the campaign finance reform program. Edsall may mean that each disserves democracy in its own way, or that there is an interaction among these developments that is generally helpful to conservative, and inimical to progressive, politics.

What is also unclear is why these means are closely associated with a specified political end. For example, what is it about a “negative campaign ad” that is markedly more useful to the right-wing sponsor? There are times when the anger can be turned in the opposite direction, as Republican Members of Congress recently found in their town hall meetings; and this anger is finding expression through social media, on TV, and surely in the election to come, in negative campaign advertising. Those same angry progressive voices will be amplified only if the required funding is available. “Loopholes”--as some understand Super PACs or (c)(4) issue advocacy to be--will flourish on the left and right alike.

Political Reform in An Era of “Existential Politics”

February 28, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Rick Pildes asks whether in this time of "existential politics," when contestants for political power perceive the very "identity of the country… to be at stake," we might expect the steady degradation and eventual collapse of institutional norms. He is moved to this reflection by Judge Laurence Silberman's recent column on Jim Comey’s and Justice Ginsburg’s interventions in the 2016 political campaign. Judge Silberman charges each with disregard of norms, with having “bent with the political winds” in a storm. Silberman does not explicitly develop the theme of an existential politics, but Pildes rightly sees something like it playing in the background.

One other consequence of this brand of politics is the collapse of any agreement about the rules of political competition. For the existential warrior, these rules either cost too much--they just get in the way--or they require tighter alignment with self-interest. If, as Michael Gerson mockingly describes the mind-set, the nation is now in the midst of a “fourth turning, or maybe the fifth progression, or the third cataclysm,” or if the government threatens a turn toward fascism, there will be little patience in this fight for ground-rules that complicate the path to victory or successful resistance. As noted here, the progressive opposition may include campaign finance limits among its reform commitments, but how far can this go, if resources are thought essential to the project of stopping Trump?

The rejection of rules tends to be rationalized, and rationalization has been spreading. Last to go has been the acceptance for the need for disclosure; but it may be on the way out, as Republican and conservative critics argue that transparency requirements are devices that the administrative state has established for the surveillance of the political opposition. In this attack on disclosure, the President’s refusal to release his returns, while a rejection of norms and not of law, has put a fine point on the precarious position of transparency in the existential politics of the day.