The New York Times has an excellent article this morning about the 527 organizations that are working on behalf of, but with apparent independence from, the Barack Obama for President campaign.
With a little bit of a wink and a nod, Barack Obama pleads with people who donate to these groups, such as Vote Hope and PowerPAC, to donate to his official presidential campaign instead – so that his political consultants can take their cut of the money, perhaps. Yet, Barack Obama must know that such donations to an official political campaign are often impossible, due to campaign finance law.
Consider the donation of $95,000 to Vote Hope and PowerPAC by lawyer Steve Phillips. Phillips is able to casually toss out that amount of money in part because he is the son of a billionaire. “We have a chance to make an impact… You need a dedicated organization with a dedicated revenue stream.”
Yes, wealthy people like Steve Phillips have a special ability to make an impact, with their dedicated revenue, that the rest of us don’t have. That’s because the right wing Supreme Court last year made invalid part of a campaign finance law that blocked 527s, with their secret and unlimited sources of money, from getting involved in political campaigns for public office. Now, 527s can spend as much money as they want to, and take money from whatever people or corporations they want to, and they don’t have to tell where their money comes from.
So, Steve Phillips can now donate $95,000 to Vote Hope and PowerPac, whereas if he were donating to the Barack Obama campaign, he could only donate a little bit over two thousand dollars, and no more. With 527s able to operate without the restrictions of the official campaigns, wealthy people like Steve Phillips are able to buy as much influence over the presidential elections as they care to.
Other power brokers that once were held back by campaign finance law are also now able to buy their way in. Corporations can give. And what about churches?
Yesterday, I wondered how Barack Obama managed to perform so much better in the South Carolina primary with heavy churchgoers than with voters who only occasionally go to church and those who never go to church. The New York Times article this morning provides what could be part of the answer: Vote Hope and PowerPAC paid for targeted radio advertisements promoting Barack Obama in South Carolina. Those radio ads featured ministers from South Carolina churches.
The 527 organizations provide these church leaders with a legal loophole. Because their churches have tax exempt status, these ministers are not allowed to use their churches’ special tax-free power to promote political candidates. But now, it seems that the ministers are using their special status, facilitated by taxpayers, to support 527s, which in turn support political candidates. It’s the equivalent of having a fake offshore corporation in the Bahamas to avoid paying taxes.
And what about church money? Is church money going into 527 organizations, which in turn promote presidential candidates?
Well, we don’t know. We can’t know. 527s can take money from wherever they want to, including tax-exempt organizations such as churches, and are under no obligation to reveal where their money comes from. Churches could be donating money to 527s, which then spend that money to promote presidential candidates, and we would never know about it. Sure, it’s against tax law, but if the donations are undisclosed, then how’s the IRS ever to find out about it?
Churches are at risk, when they are led by unscrupulous preachers, of being used as shadow fundraising operations for political campaigns. In this sense, the rising power of 527 organizations in the presidential campaign does not just threaten our government’s independence from influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. The separation of church and state is threatened as well, as political candidates find that their fortunes rise and fall according to the success with which they pander to wealthy and influential churches.
We now know that Barack Obama’s victory in South Carolina took part with the assistance of church leaders, and that the core of his votes came from habitual churchgoers. How much longer, with this growing involvement of churches in presidential campaign, will it be before no candidate will be able to become President of the United States without approval from the nation’s most powerful churches?
The mechanisms are in place. The churches now only have to learn how to use them.