Explaining Jon Stewart’s Monologue on Campaign Finance

After more than 16 years at the helm of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart hosted his final episode last night. The hour-long show devoted most of its running time to Stewart saying farewell to the correspondents and staffers who have played a part in the show’s history. But Stewart found time to deliver a short monologue on how truth is often obscured in business, policy, and politics. (Because this is a family-friendly Corporate Political Activity Law Blog, we won’t mention the term Stewart repeated throughout the monologue.) One strategy, Stewart explains, is hiding the truth through complexity:

Hey, a handful of billionaires can’t buy our elections, right? Of course not. They can only pour unlimited, anonymous cash into a 501(c)(4) if 50% is devoted to issue education, otherwise they’d have to 501(c)(6) it, or funnel it openly through a non-campaign coordinated Super PAC.

Here’s a quick overview of the campaign-finance concepts that Stewart referenced, which also doubles as a handy primer on the different ways money is raised and spent on political activity.

  • For federal elections, the making of political contributions to a candidate or a political party is subject to both contribution limits and disclosure requirements. The FEC has jurisdiction over these issues.
  • Tax-exempt organizations are not subject to the FEC’s jurisdiction. Instead, the IRS ensures that 501(c) organizations do not engage in prohibited political activity. A 501(c)(3) organization, for example, may not engage in any political activity but may engage in limited lobbying expenditures. In contrast, a 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) may carry on partisan political activity so long as political activity is a secondary—and not the primary—activity of the organization. The IRS has expressed an apparent tolerance of political activity by 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(6)s, so long as the political activity is less than 50% of the organization’s total activity. A 501(c)(4) or a 501(c)(6) may also engage in unlimited lobbying expenditures. There are no limits on the money that may be donated to 501(c) organizations and the donations are not subject to disclosure.
  • As we’ve discussed here on the blog, a Super PAC is a political organization that may only make independent expenditures, which means that they are not coordinated with candidates. A Super PAC may raise unlimited funds but it is required to disclose its contributors.

Stewart is right. The world of campaign finance can be complicated. Although he will no longer be around to explain the complexities of campaign-finance law, we will!

The Pay-to-Play Effect in New Jersey’s 2015 Statewide Elections

2015 is a unique year in New Jersey politics, as the New Jersey Assembly races are the only set of elections scheduled for this year that extend beyond county and municipal lines. Even the Assembly Members’ colleagues in the Senate are not up for re-election until 2017.

With the State’s attention turned to the Assembly, this is an opportune time to examine how pay-to-play laws in effect at the State, county, and municipal level may affect this year’s Assembly campaigns.

Contributions to Assembly candidates will not generally affect a vendor’s eligibility for most government contracts in New Jersey. There are, though, two limited scenarios in which contributions to Assembly candidates may impact a vendor’s eligibility for government contracts. The first is when the member of the Legislature represents a district that is part of a State redevelopment entity and the second is when a vendor seeks a non-fair-and-open contract with the Legislative Branch itself.

Although we cannot discount the possibility that one of New Jersey’s hundreds of local pay-to-play ordinances may cover contributions to legislative candidate committees, most local ordinances do not extend to legislative recipients, as pay-to-play restrictions must be narrowly tailored to withstand constitutional scrutiny. For example, even some of the most stringent pay-to-play ordinances in the State (such as the ordinances in effect in Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden) do not cover contributions to legislative candidate committees.

So, to return to our 2015 example, if an Assembly member does not represent a district that is part of a State redevelopment entity and does not serve as the Speaker of the Assembly, a vendor likely may contribute more than $300 per election to that candidate without negative pay-to-play implications. Before writing a check, however, vendors should keep mind that there is a distinction between contributing to a legislative candidate committee and to a legislative leadership committee (contributions greater than $300 to the latter will impact eligibility for contracts with the State of New Jersey and its departments and agencies).

Calling All Government Contractors: Upcoming Pennsylvania Political Contribution Disclosure Form

For government contractors, the start of a new year brings with it a host of filing requirements in many states along the Northeast Corridor. Although some states (such as New York and Connecticut) do not impose annual or semi-annual filing requirements on government contractors, other states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland require government contractors to file reports. This is the second in a series of blog posts that focuses on the upcoming filing deadlines in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. These reports generally require government contractors to disclose certain information about their political contributions, but no two filing requirements are the same. As your company prepares to put its best foot forward in 2015, this series will share what you need to know about these disclosure requirements and some compliance tips to make sure that your company is accurately capturing all relevant information.

Pennsylvania (Filling Deadline – February 15, 2015)

Business entities that have been awarded any no-bid contract by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or any of its political subdivisions must file Form DSEB-504 with the Pennsylvania’s Department of State by February 15, 2015. Because February 15 falls on a Sunday this year, make sure that your form is postmarked or received before that date. The form requires disclosure of all political contributions made during the preceding calendar year by any covered individual whose contributions exceed $1,000 in the aggregate for the year. There is an alternative form (Form DSEB-504B) that must be filed when the contributions made in the previous year do not exceed the $1,000 aggregate limit. Electronic filing is not available in Pennsylvania, so the appropriate form must be submitted either by mail or by bringing a copy to the Department of State’s offices.

Compliance Tip – Although Pennsylvania law prohibits corporate contributions, the definition of “covered individuals” is broad and includes a company’s officers, directors, associates, partners, owners and employees. The definition also includes the immediate family members of any covered individual. Whether a company is required to file Form DSEB-504 or Form DSEB-504B depends on whether any of these covered individuals made a contribution in excess of the $1,000 aggregate limit. 

The DISCLOSE Act: Fantasy or Future?

Following a wave of judicial decisions that have cleared the way for more soft money in politics, federal legislators have continued to press for the passage of laws creating more stringent regulations on donor disclosures and transparency in political contributions.

The Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act was introduced in Congress in 2010 and 2012, but the legislation was twice defeated after falling short of overcoming a Republican-led filibuster.  A third attempt at passing disclosure legislation, the DISCLOSE Act of 2014, was introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and is currently being considered in the Senate Rules Committee. A hearing was held last week.

“DISCLOSE 2014” would:

  • Broaden the definition of what is a reportable “independent expenditure,” by treating the functional equivalent of express advocacy as an independent expenditure ;
  • expand the time periods during which a communication would be considered a reportable “electioneering communication,”
  • require disclosure of donors underlying large transfers to political spenders,
  • require that covered organizations (including corporations, labor unions and 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofit organizations) that spend more than $10,000 or more on election ads publicly identify their donors, and
  • impose new required disclaimers for political advertisements.

The bill faces the hefty obstacle of garnering bipartisan support to become federal law.  Nonetheless, DISCLOSE 2014 could serve as a model for state and local jurisdictions. While the Supreme Court (in decisions such as Citizens United and McCutcheon) has made it easier to generously fund political and issue advocacy organizations, the Court has also emphasized that disclosure requirements are both constitutional and beneficial to a healthy democracy.  Accordingly, proponents of enhanced campaign finance transparency might find that the last bastion of reform lies in disclosure requirements like those introduced in DISCLOSE 2014.

Legislation Introduced to Require More Disclosure in NYC Campaign Ads

New York City Councilman Daniel Garodnick (Manhattan-D) introduced legislation this week that would require more disclosure in campaign ads. The local law proposes to amend the Administrative Code of the City of New York to require public-facing disclosure of campaign spending.

The law would require that whenever an authorized candidate committee pays for literature, advertisements, or other communications, the communication must disclose that it was funded by the candidate or committee. The law would also require the same disclosure when a candidate or authorized committee permits another individual or entity to pay for communications in support of, or in opposition to, that candidate.

If enacted, the law will take effect in six months and will permit the Campaign Finance Board to promulgate any necessary rules to enforce the provision. The text of the proposed law can be found here. It was referred by the City Council to the Committee on Governmental Operations for further review.