President Biden could get a boost next month in the push to build support for his administration’s policy agenda as allies and campaign alumni prepare to launch an outside ‘dark money’ nonprofit organization with the White House’s blessing.
The organization, known as “Building Back Together,” will run television advertisements advocating for the president’s legislative priorities while working with other Biden-aligned groups, according to reports.
The president and his top aides have been briefed on the strategy, which top campaign aides and close allies will oversee.
“This is not to replicate,” White House senior adviser and longtime Biden confidante Anita Dunn told the Wall Street Journal, noting that the group will work in concert with others outside the administration. “It is not to duplicate.”
The organization will be registered as a 501(c)(4), meaning it can lobby, organize “grassroots” campaigns, and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence policy without disclosing donors.
As a so-called “social welfare” nonprofit organization, the group cannot direct funds to candidates or engage too much politically. Issue-focused ads typically don’t count.
It can engage in political advocacy and won’t need to abide by the transparency disclosures that apply to political parties, campaigns, or super PAC fundraising committees, so long as the primary focus is not to influence elections.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the effort and whether officials had asked the group to voluntarily report donors to the public.
Watchdogs say disclosures are needed.
“Big picture, dark money erodes trust in politics because even if the contribution is unknown to the public, key political figures can be aware of who is supporting their agendas and aspirations,” said Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project.
Hauser said large contributions should be made public and recommends voluntary compliance for donors who give amounts near or above $10,000. This would help with the optics.
“Ultimately, the system needs revamped laws and a Federal Elections Commission designed to actually implement them,” he added.
Rules surrounding donor disclosure for 501(c)(4)s have been in flux over the years.
There’s no legal requirement to disclose donors identities publicly, and new exemptions last year meant some groups no longer needed to share the names and addresses of big donors with the Internal Revenue Service.
The arrangement is not unusual.
When former President Donald Trump was in office, his close advisers launched America First Policies, which pressed for confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees and touted his policies, spending millions on campaign-style ads.
Former President Barack Obama had The Common Purpose Project, a 501(c)(4) that limited donations to $50,000 and disclosed its donors, Priorities USA, also a 501(c)(4), and Organizing for Action, another 501(c)(4), which evolved from his reelection campaign, Obama For America.
Transparency advocates have argued that politicians and donors can bypass public disclosure rules through the groups. Obama faced charges of hypocrisy after pledging to limit big dollar fundraising in his first term.
“Groups like [GOP-aligned] Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA were created for the purpose of hiding donors,” Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of campaign finance reform organization Democracy 21, told the Washington Post in 2013.
“Donors were basically told: ‘You can give your money to the super-PAC, but you’ll be disclosed. If you don’t want to be disclosed give it to our 501(c)(4), and we’ll hide who you are,'” Wertheimer added. “They weren’t created to be ‘social welfare organizations.’ They were created to hide the donors from the American people, who were financing the campaign expenditures by these groups.”
OFA faced similar charges.
“No big bank or corporation will donate million-dollar checks to OFA without the expectation that it will impact which issues they engage on, and that’s very troubling,” Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said at the time.
Hauser suggested voluntary compliance is not enough.
“Shaming the shame-able into voluntary compliance is a band-aid on a gaping wound that is those who are shamelessly benefiting from the broken status quo,” he said.
Among the first orders of business for the new pro-Biden group will be the push to build support for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus package, which includes a $15 per hour minimum wage hike, $1,400 direct payments, vaccine distribution aid, and more.
Biden pitched his bill to Wisconsin battleground voters during a televised town hall this week, building on interviews last month by Vice President Kamala Harris with local Arizona and West Virginia media.
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