GOP fails in bid to undermine campaign finance laws via tax bill

An effort to allow religious organizations to engage in politics, which could have let yet more dark money into politics, failed to make it into the final GOP tax bill — a small but important win for democracy, at least for now.

As we reported last month, the House version of the tax bill included a provision repealing the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 law that bars churches and charities from conducting partisan political activities.

But the Senate version omitted that provision. And on Wednesday during House-Senate negotiations, the Senate parliamentarian ruled after a challenge by Democrats that repeal violated the “Byrd Rule” — essentially, it wasn’t pertinent to the larger bill.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment had been a priority for many of the ultra-conservative Christian leaders who backed President Donald Trump’s campaign, and in February Trump announced his support for repeal.

But good government advocates warned that repealing the Johnson Amendment could create a major loophole in campaign finance law, letting donors stay secret by pouring money into charities or churches, which don’t have to report their donors.

As Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center put it back in May to The Daily Democracy: “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.”

In addition, many mainstream leaders worried about being thrust against their will into the political arena, as thousands of them warned in a letter to Congress in August.

That fear has receded for now — but campaign finance groups say the fight likely isn’t over. Advocates of repeal, they warn, may well try to insert language into upcoming spending bills that would simply direct the government not to enforce the law.

Photo: Creative Commons

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