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No Mr. Donohue, mega-corporations are not like American colonists

Emily Peterson-Cassin co-authored this post.

Once again this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce practiced the classic misdirection magic trick, this time using an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rulemaking as a diversion. But begging us to “Look at my right hand, not my left hand!” won’t work this time.

In a blog post this week, Chamber President Tom Donohue rehashed the conspiracy theory that the IRS is seeking to somehow restrict free speech, a conspiracy theory that’s spurred by the desire to keep a political scandal in the news until the midterm elections in November, and to reframe campaign finance reform as anything other than beneficial to democracy. He’s hoping to scare the public while drawing the absurd comparison between their ability to spend millions manipulating elections without having to disclose their donors – and the people who fought the American Revolution.

As a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization, the Chamber can currently spend up to 49% of its resources on political activity, without disclosing its donors. In the current election season, which OpenSecrets calls “the darkest money election to date,” the Chamber alone has spent about a third of the $23 million in total independent expenditures spent on congressional races so far. The IRS is currently engaged in a rulemaking that could clarify the definition of political activity for nonprofits in such a way that the Chamber would be required to drastically reduce this spending or even disclose its donors. The Chamber does not want us to see what’s behind the curtain.

Far from being a shadowy plot to limit speech, the IRS’s current effort to revise the rules could actually increase civic engagement and grassroots lobbying by nonprofits. The current IRS rules are vague and subjective, making it hard to tell when a group has done so much political activity that it’s violated the boundaries of its nonprofit status. Clearer, fairer rules could encourage more democratic participation from small nonprofits that can’t spend valuable resources on high priced lawyers to tell them what the IRS will or won’t consider political activity. A new draft of the rules is expected in early 2015.

Fighting for the right to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections is not taking a principled stand on the First Amendment; it’s an attempt to exert far more influence over government than most other people can. “Free speech” in the sense that corporate political spenders use the term – unlimited political expenditures by the wealthiest – drowns out the speech of most of the rest of society.

If a group like the Chamber wants the privileges of nonprofit status, it must follow the rules, even when the rules make it harder for them to manipulate our elections. The Chamber thinks it can distract us by hiding what it’s really afraid of – losing its ability to game the system. But we won’t be fooled.

Sam Jewler is the communications and research officer for Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch program. Emily Peterson-Cassin coordinates our Bright Lines Project.

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