REPORT: House GOP Introduces ‘Rights’ Bill Described As ‘Citizens United On Steroids’
A House Rep Sponsors An Alarming Bill
Amidst all the controversies surrounding the Republican Congress’s hyper-aggressive hearings schedule for president-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, the House quietly slid an alarming bill onto the docket. Walter Beaman Jones Jr., Republican House Rep. for North Carolina’s 3rd District since 1995, sponsored H.R. 172, the American Humanist Association reported, Monday.
H.R. 172, is a bill “To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.” There are no details on the bill, which was sponsored on January 3rd. As of Monday, the Library of Congress considers the details “delayed.”
The Johnson Amendment was a 1954 change to the US tax code, named after then Senator and future president Lyndon Johnson. Even though it affected churches, at the time, it wasn’t considered to be about them, unlike the language of the new repeal bill. The 1954 rule stipulates that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” This means that tax exempt organizations can’t directly campaign for a candidate. That includes churches, as well as nonprofit advocacy groups and general PACs.
Republicans have been chipping away at these kinds of rules for years. The 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision ruled that money is speech, and therefore donations to an advocacy group can’t be limited. The 2014 McCutcheon vs. FEC decision ruled that the number of donations to these types of groups can’t be limited. This has led to the rise of Super PACs, direct advocacy organizations that may advocate for a candidate, but they have to disclose their donors and they can’t directly coordinate with campaigns–at least in theory, though this rule has been poorly enforced.
If the new unified Republican government succeeds in repealing the Johnson Amendment, we would almost certainly lose what little transparency we have left in tracking the influence of money in politics. It would allow groups deemed as public charities or churches to collect donations without an obligation to report the donors or the amount, and use that money to campaign directly for candidates.
This could easily kill off both parties or at least make them totally dependent on outside private interests. It could happen fast–within one or two elections–since anyone running for office funding their campaign on unlimited secret money would have an enormous advantage over anyone running on limited, transparent funds. Mega-organizations like ALEC and the Koch Industry’s network of advocacy groups could quickly replace the influence of the parties on the campaigns. This kind of thing is already hugely problematic, but it could become all-consuming instead of a hybrid arrangement. And there would be no public information about who was funding it.
Jones, the bill’s sponsor, is already using a version of this. Jones has been very safe in his seat for a long time, and seems to fundraise below average. But his biggest donor in the 2016 cycle, according to Open Secrets, was a group called Democracy Engine. Democracy Engine boasts that it “offers donors—and the organizations and campaigns that solicit them—more freedom and flexibility with their contributions.” In other words, donors donate to them, and they turn around and donate to Super PACs. Using the letter of the law following deregulation since 2010, they are legally conducting money laundering for campaign purposes. There’s no way to know who made the donation, but Democracy Engine’s LLC site is targeted at lobbyists.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump indicated that he would support repealing the Johnson Amendment. During the campaign, Congressional Republicans framed it as an issue of the rights of churches to have free speech. Of course, this turns the First Amendment on its head. The prohibition on government recognizing a religion does not mean that churches have a right to be used as campaign war chests. Jones’s bill would empower tax exempt organizations in general, and not specifically churches, to campaign. But it could be used that way.
In the run-up to the 2016 Iowa caucus, an “independent” organization blatantly campaigning for Ted Cruz ran a “99 pastors” initiative, which sought out one evangelist pastor in each of Iowa’s 99 counties to direct their all-important evangelical flock toward Ted Cruz. This was seriously pushing the limits on what is allowable, but due to a lack of enforcement, it was barely challenged. However, if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, nothing would stop a candidate like Cruz from using churches as campaign organizations, using them to both fundraise and as messaging organs. Furthermore, nothing would stop a political organization or politician from setting up an organization and calling it a church. As long as they convinced the IRS that it was in fact a religious establishment, nothing would stop them from setting up an organization with all of the social and political privilege and lack of transparency of a church, the tax exemption of a nonprofit advocacy group, the fundraising capacity of a Super PAC, and the direct messaging power of a political campaign.
If you thought Trump was a demagogue with a cult-like following, powered by shadowy business interests, with infuriatingly hypocritical support from evangelicals, just wait until the Republican party makes it so that’s the only way to win an election.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
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