This Ruling Might Reduce the Influence of Money in Politics

Money in politics is a corrupting influence, and many people and corporations that give money to politicians like to keep their identities secret. They like to operate in the dark, which is why anonymous political contributions are called “dark money.”

But now donors to these dark money groups will no longer be able to remain anonymous, after a federal judge on Friday issued a ruling invalidating a Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulation. This is the culmination of a long legal battle that could have major implications for campaign finance and for the U.S. political system.

Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell issued her ruling saying that the FEC’s current regulation of dark money groups fails to uphold the standard Congress intended when it required the disclosure of politically related spending.

“The challenged regulation facilitates such financial ‘routing,’ blatantly undercuts the congressional goal of fully disclosing the sources of money flowing into federal political campaigns, and thereby suppresses the benefits intended to accrue from disclosure … ,” Howell wrote.

Specifically, Howell’s opinion says that “dark money groups that spend at least $250 in independent expenditures must report every contributor who gave at least $200 in the past year as well as those who give to finance independent expenditures generally.”

In a press release the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the plaintiffs in the case, said:

“This ruling declares that the law unambiguously commands more disclosure than the FEC has required in 30 years, restoring Congress’s intended full disclosure of those making contributions to groups that fund independent expenditures—ads that explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate for office.”

CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder had this to say about his group’s major legal victory:

“This ruling looks like a game changer, Based on this ruling, the public should know a whole lot more about who is giving money for the purpose of influencing an election, and it will be much harder for donors to anonymously contribute to groups that advertise in elections.”

“This ruling could dramatically change the American political landscape and result in significantly more transparency. Major donors are now  on notice that if they contribute to politically active 501(c)(4) organizations, their contributions will have to be disclosed, and if they are not, CREW will pursue enforcement cases with the FEC and, if necessary, in court.”

Former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel celebrated the ruling as “groundbreaking” and said that it addressed concerns she has had for many years. She also said it is unusual for a federal court to refuse to defer to the FEC’s interpretation, but that if the ruling stands it would be a major victory for those who want to see more disclosures.

“This is a great step forward in trying to get greater disclosure for who is influencing the election,” Ravel said.

The FEC now has 45 days to issue interim regulations that uphold the broader disclosure standards.