Building on our previous work on “dark money” nonprofits, the Center for Responsive Politics is rolling out new information on the activities of these groups that are playing an increasing role in U.S. elections.
Dark money groups — politically active 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) trade associations that, under tax law, don’t have to disclose their donors — aren’t supposed to spend the majority of their resources on politics. But over the last six years, a combination of Supreme Court decisions that loosened restrictions on their electoral activity, coupled with regulatory confusion, has led to a surge in their political expenditures. Direct spending on federal elections by 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) groups has risen from $10 million in 2004 to well over $300 million in 2012 — and that’s just counting what they reported to the Federal Election Commission, which doesn’t include all of their political spending.And the nature of their activity has changed in recent elections. Nearly half of the political spending by these groups in 2004 went for communications to their own members — what the FEC calls “communication costs.” Now, it shows up almost entirely in the form of negative, often misleading ads aimed at influencing the outcome of elections. In 2012, only 2 percent of the spending by these groups was directed at their own members.
But trying to sort out exactly what these groups are doing ranges from very difficult to impossible, given how little information is available to the public. For example, the groups must disclose their total spending on their IRS Form 990s, due annually. But nowhere do they have to break down those expenditures in detail and say exactly how they spent the money, as unions must in reports with the Department of Labor. On top of that, the 990s are filed anywhere from five to 23 months after the spending in question actually takes place. Once they’re filed, the IRS offers no searchable database or machine readable data to the public. It provides only scant summary data.
To help get around some of the hurdles posed by the dearth of IRS data, CRP has manually input more than 14,000 records, with the aim of bringing more clarity to the financial activities of nonprofits that have spent money to influence, directly and indirectly, federal elections over the last three cycles.
CRP’s data includes all politically active 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, whether or not they have been granted tax-exempt status by the IRS. Such groups as Crossroads GPS, American Commitment, and Citizens for Strength and Security either have not received or not applied for exempt status. The IRS does not include such groups in the data it makes available. Also, CRP’s new data includes other information that’s absent from the IRS data: total expenditures, total grants and total political spending reported to the IRS, over a period of multiple years.