Senate Committee: Campaign Finance Laws Aren't Enforced

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Senators on a Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday heard about the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in political campaigns last year from secret donors, and why federal agencies are nearly powerless to do anything about it.


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It's become a regular refrain on Capitol Hill. When it comes to political money and corruption, the government should just enforce the laws already on the books. Well, today, two senators held a Judiciary subcommittee hearing on why those laws aren't well enforced. NPR's Peter Overby has that story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island began by calling the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision disgraceful. The 2010 ruling upset a fragile balance in the campaign finance laws. Among other things, it helped encourage more politicking by 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors during last year's campaign. And Citizens United helped make superPACs possible.

They raised million-dollar contributions earmarked to help specific presidential candidates. Criminal enforcement of campaign finance law falls mainly to the Justice Department, but acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman told Whitehouse that after Citizens United:

MYTHILI RAMAN: There are real challenges to our ability to enforce the campaign contribution laws, and there are real challenges to our ability to determine when and whether there is the type of corruption that is rooted in campaign contributions in exchange for official acts.

OVERBY: Corruption isn't the paramount issue according to the other senator at the hearing, freshman Republican Ted Cruz of Texas.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: I think we should all be concerned about those who are elected to office and immediately want to prevent anyone from speaking and being engaged in the political process or saying something they don't like.

OVERBY: This was the first hearing on political money after an election cycle that cost an estimated $6 billion. Most of the biggest superPACs acted to bolster presidential candidates ostensibly without any coordination. In fact, there's a law against coordination, but the Federal Election Commission has been unable to define coordination, and the advent of superPACs confused the situation even more. Raman said that's a problem for the Justice Department.

RAMAN: We want clear and commonsense understanding of what coordination is so that we can do our job as robustly as we have been able to.

OVERBY: Also last year, big 501(c)(4) groups, such as Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity and the League of Conservation Voters, loomed large in presidential and Senate races with their secret money. The Justice Department's Raman, responding to questions from Cruz, said that the secrecy is another problem in fighting corruption.

RAMAN: We need transparency in the way our campaign finance system works so that if a donor is, in fact, using an organization like a 501(c)(4) to hide their identity that we somehow be able to get that information.

OVERBY: Whitehouse laid much of the blame at the IRS. He suggested it's the wrong agency to enforce campaign finance laws.

SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: We have DOJ deferring for enforcement to an effectively toothless organization with the predictable result that zero cases appear to have been brought.

OVERBY: Whitehouse said he's looking for Republican senators who might cosponsor a stronger disclosure law, and another hearing is in the works. The Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations, chaired by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, is taking its own look at how the laws are enforced or not. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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