A clash between the public’s right to know and fears of political persecution will play out when the Federal Election Commission on Thursday takes up a request from a leading tea party group that it be exempt from disclosure laws to protect its financial supporters from harassment.
The FEC is set to vote on whether to exempt the Tea Party Leadership Fund (TPLF) from campaign disclosure laws in light of the group’s claims that its donors have faced “sustained harassment and severe hostility” and should have the right to give anonymously.
The TPLF, which operates both a traditional political action committee and a “super PAC” for independent political expenditures, is arguing that its donors have been subject to harsh criticism from the federal government and the general public and that having to reveal their identity would only open them to further harassment.
Federal campaign finance laws require political action committees and super PACs to publicly disclose donors who contribute more than $200 per campaign cycle. Opponents of the tea party group’s petition say the exemption is unjustified and many of the instances of harassment it cites are the normal give-and-take of modern politics.
The TPLF submitted to the FEC commissioners more than 1,400 pages of media reports and other examples of public harassment and threats the group has received. It cites as a precedent for its exemption court cases that have ruled that certain “small, persecuted groups whose very existence depended on some manner of anonymity” can be exempted from the disclosure rules. Exempted groups include the Socialist Workers Party. Also, donors to the NAACP were protected during the civil rights struggles.
Critics say the tea party group is not in the same category.
“This is not a vulnerable and persecuted organization like the NAACP in the Jim Crow South, but instead a group that is part of a highly organized and well-funded movement that has already seen huge successes in state, local and federal elections,” said Paul S. Ryan, the Campaign Legal Center’s senior counsel. “This tea party group comparing itself to the NAACP of old, whose membership feared for its lives and its livelihoods, would fail the laugh test if their request was not so offensive and so outrageous on its face.”
The TPLF has raised more than $1.2 million in one year and has seen more than a dozen tea party members elected to Congress, its critics note. But tea party groups point to the still-evolving scandal of suspected IRS targeting of tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status as evidence of the political and administrative pressures they face.
Uncertainty over how the FEC will vote was heightened after draft opinions both supporting and opposing the exemption request were leaked in recent days.