When he ran for president, Donald Trump made noises about reducing the political influence of special interests and wealthy donors, decrying a “broken system.”
But a new executive order signed by Trump Thursday could create yet another way for unaccountable dark money to flood political campaigns — this time, with a tax deduction.
The ultimate result could be to further widen the gap in political influence enjoyed by the super-wealthy over ordinary Americans, undermining the promise of political equality that’s integral to a well-functioning democracy.
Trump’s order, signed Thursday at a Rose Garden ceremony featuring members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, directs the IRS not to penalize churches or other religious organizations that violate a 1954 law, known as the Johnson Amendment, barring churches and other charities from conducting political activities.
Relaxing or scrapping the Johnson Amendment — named for future president Lyndon B. Johnson, its Senate sponsor — has been a top priority for conservative religious organizations looking to flex their political muscles.
The order’s most immediate result will likely be to bring churches even more fully into the political sphere.
“Church members could give tax-deductible donations to a church, which would then be used by the church to campaign for a specific candidate,” Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute told Salon recently. “It could effectively turn churches into campaign offices and pastors into party operatives.”
But the impact of Trump’s move could extend beyond religious groups, by giving big political contributors attractive new vehicles for pooling money and influencing elections in secret, supporters of campaign finance regulations warn.
“There is every reason to believe that any effort to loosen the Johnson Amendment’s strictures would lead to a new flood of dark, unaccoutable, and tax deductible campaign funds into our elections,” wrote the Campaign Legal Center’s Brendan Fischer in a white paper released Wednesday.
Of course, since the 2010 Citizens United decision, wealthy individual donors have been able to spend as much on politics as they want, and keep their identities hidden. That’s what “dark money” groups are. But because churches are defined as charities, organized under the tax code as 501(c)3 organizations, Trump’s order could well lead to political organizations that not only accept unlimited contributions and keep their donors secret, but allow their donors to get a tax deduction, too.
“Wealthy donors could use an existing religious institution as a conduit for tax-deductible secret political spending — for example, Robert Mercer could write a large check to a church with the understanding that the church would then sponsor political attack ads in advance of the 2018 elections,” Fischer wrote in an email to The Daily Democracy, referring to the secretive Republican hedge-fund billionaire who was the main funder of a pro-Trump Super PAC.
In fact, Fischer added, the order could even allow operatives like Karl Rove to create new political organizations and call them churches in order to ensure that donors got a tax deduction.
“It isn’t necessarily difficult for an entity to call itself a church,” Fischer wrote, noting a Nashville sex club that rebranded as a church in 2015.
It’s true that, under existing law, tax-exempt groups would still need to show that the majority of their work is focused on “social welfare,” not political activity. But the IRS’s enforcement of that requirement has been weak. As long as a group doesn’t spend more than 49 percent of its budget on politics, it’s in the clear. And even groups that appear to have little reason for existing other than to influence politics, like Rove’s Crossroads GPS, haven’t been penalized.
The ultimate fear for those looking to reduce the influence of big money in politics is that Congress could repeal the Johnson Amendment entirely. That would mean any charity, religious or not, could continue to get tax-deductible contributions while spending as much as it wanted on politics and keeping its donors secret.
Karen Hobert Flynn warned that, in addition to the other dangers, Trump’s order could lay the groundwork for Congress to act.
“This executive order paves the way for potential congressional repeal of the ‘Johnson amendment,’ which could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in secret political spending,” Hobert Flynn said in a statement.