WASHINGTON — Campaign finance watchdogs are feeling a little low these days.
As more details of the IRS scandal emerge, it's become clear to the advocates who have been calling for robust investigations of political spending that not only did IRS agents ignore their pleas — they also did the exact thing that will keep talk of campaign finance off the agenda for the foreseeable future.
Fred Wertheimer, founder of campaign spending watchdog Democracy 21, has been pushing for campaign finance reform for four decades. He told BuzzFeed the IRS scandal is going to be another setback in his quest, but he's not sure how long of one quite yet.
"I don't believe it's years," he said. "That's hard to predict, but I certainly don't believe it's years. I mean, you are not going to be able to brush under the rug the fact that we have a secret money scandal that is undermining our political system. Maybe you can do it for a while, but I don't think you can do it for very long."
Watchdogs have waited for years for the IRS to investigate the ways campaign spending operations use 501(c)(4)s to anonymize political spending and deny partisan groups the "social welfare" designation that allowed them to dump millions into elections. The groups repeatedly called on regulators to dig in to big operations like CrossroadsGPS, the Republican-leaning group founded by Karl Rove and Priorities USA, the 501(c)(4) founded alongside a super PAC aimed at bolstering President Obama's reelection campaign.
Instead, the IRS targeted smaller, conservative groups requesting the social welfare designation for extra scrutiny. An inspector general's report found conservatives were expressly targeted while progressive groups got less scrutiny. President Obama, Treasury Sec. Jack Lew, and Attorney General Eric Holder, along with just about every member of Congress, have strongly condemned the IRS and demanded to know more.
The watchdog groups have condemned the politicized nature of the IRS scrutiny, too. But they're also scratching their heads at the ham-fisted approach the IRS took. They still want political 501(c)(4)s investigated, and they still want blatantly political groups stripped of their special status. But they now recognize that's not going to happen any time soon.
"I think an unfortunate byproduct of the wholly justified Republican outrage over this incident is that it will then be used an an excuse to avoid the kind of disclosure we need, disclosure which Republicans in the last few years have mostly opposed," said Rick Hasen, law professor at UC-Irvine and the author of Election Law Blog.
Hasen and Wertheimer said the only way for things to proceed now is for Congress to "step up," in Hasen's words, and pass campaign finance reform legislation. But that's not likely to happen now, either. In Congress, the chilling effect from the IRS scandal has extended to campaign finance reform, which even supporters acknowledge is now a lot less likely to happen.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for public citizen, said he doubts the IRS wanted to deal with political 501(c)(4)s in the first place. After the scandal they definitely won't.
"This has turned into a very unfortunate situation. The IRS never wanted to enforce the law, and they never have. And now they have every excuse to not even feel as if they should be enforcing the law," he said. "So this is a very unfortunate situation. I mean, if the IRS is going to apologize for anything, they should apologizing for not enforcing the law."
Even though the still-growing IRS scandal is likely to drown them out for the time being, watchdogs say they'll keep at it. And they say they'll win in the end.
"I believe we can over time, and you do that by continuing to do what we've been doing, which is building support exposing the problems that are arising because of secret money and demonstrating what is an ongoing scandal that is taking place at the expense of the American people," said Wertheimer. "I do not buy the argument that this is a long-term detriment to the goal of providing citizens with information they have a fundamental right to know," he added.
Wertheimer would prefer things get back on track for his cause sooner rather than later.
"I don't have another 41 years [to devote to this]," Wertheimer said. "You may."