Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

It would appear that the Democrats and the GOP agree on the basics of campaign finance reform. There is a big difference of opinion over whether disclosure should include real political heavyweights like VPIRG. When that subject is breached, the response seems to be similar to the Wizard of Oz when exposed by Toto: “Pay not attention to that man behind the curtain.”  This Vermont Digger article has the full story:

Democratic Party chair Jake Perkinson, Speaker of the House Shap Smith, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, and Secretary of State Jim Condos unveiled the Democratic edition of campaign finance reform at a press conference held at the Statehouse on Tuesday.

Most of the Democrats’ suggestions fell in step with the campaign finance reform proposal floated by Republican lawmakers on Jan. 17, and though the event was a distinctly Democratic affair, each speaker took care to note that they, as Perkinson put it, “welcomed the current enthusiasm among our Republican brothers and sisters.”

As pointed out here in TNR numerous times, VPIRG is the 800 lb gorilla when it comes to political influence in Vermont.  The problem is that this subject is rarely mentioned under the gold dome.  In fact VPIRG is usually first in line to push for campaign finance laws that restrict any potential competition and pretty much leave them uncontested in the political arena.  Every once in a while someone points out that the emperor has no clothes:

House Minority Leader Don Turner said he was pleased to see the Democrats’ proposal echo the main point in the GOP’s plan, and he liked the concept of extending disclosure requirements to a broader range of organizations. But Turner suggested a different group he’d like to see stop operating under the radar in the political realm — Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Needless to say, such an audacious statement did not sit well with the emperor:

Paul Burns, VPIRG executive director, was quick to point out that VPIRG has never been involved in a partisan race. “We assiduously avoid that kind of thing,” Burns said. If the Legislature looks at disclosure requirements for 501(c)4s, “the crux of the matter is whether or not the organization is actually working to elect or defeat candidates,” he said. Any attempt to place disclosure on issue-based advocacy groups not involved in the electoral fray would be an “incredible infringement on the freedom of association and freedom of speech rights of these groups,” Burns added.

Burns is being disingenious.  There are a lot of ways to influence politics then getting involved directly in a partisan race.  Numerous non-profits have found a way to weild enormous political influence without such direct involvement.  Such groups wield a lot of political power and are a conduit for a lot of unreported donations to impact politics.  This is a matter that I wrote about in 2010 for the old True North Radio website:

This begs the question of what is driving our political agenda if it is not the interests of the voters. This question was explored by a Hudson Institute Conference that was held in 2005 called “When Non-Profits Attack: Nonprofit Organizations as Political Advocates“. The theme of the conference was that the use of non-profit organizations is increasingly advancing political interests. Since then, using non-profits as a funnel for money to advance a political agenda is starting to be more widely seen as a serious problem.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article: “The Senate’s chief tax writer has called for a federal investigation into advocacy groups that have become increasingly popular vehicles for outside donations.

These groups, known as 501(c) 4s after the section of the tax code that defines them, can raise unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and labor unions to spend on political advertisements.”

The problem has become more pronounced after changes in the campaign finance laws according the Wall Street Journal article: “After a 2002 campaign-finance law that banned companies and labor unions from making unlimited donations directly to political parties, more outside political entities began running their own independent campaigns for political candidates.”

VPIRG has perfected the art of the use of non-profit status to push a political agenda.  According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, they constantly rank at or near the top of entities in Vermont employing lobbyists.  Of course we do not want to create laws that would infringe upon free speech, or the right to association, but to talk about the influence of money in politics without mentioning VPIRG is like discussing crime without any reference to criminals.  They should be called on this reality every time they speak up on this issue.