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Ron Wyden: Campaign Disclosure Reform Chances 'Greater Than Ever Before'

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RON WYDEN CAMPAIGN DISCLOSURE
Sen. Ron Wyden (right) listens to problems confronting Oregon National Guard veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan on April 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) | AP

WASHINGTON -- Calling the lack of disclosure on hundreds of millions of dollars in spending during the 2012 election "egregious" and "offensive," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is hopeful that senators in both parties are now more amenable to campaign finance disclosure reforms.

"I think the prospects are greater than ever before," Wyden told The Huffington Post in an interview.

The senior senator from Oregon will not be sitting on the sidelines in this battle. Recently he announced a bipartisan plan to tackle campaign finance disclosure with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Wyden is also in close contact with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a chief sponsor of the proposed Disclose Act (another effort to enhance campaign transparency), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) about crafting bipartisan legislation. He hopes to persuade more Republicans to support a disclosure bill this year.

"The ideal would be to have an equal number of Democratic and Republican senators come out early on and start building on this," Wyden said.

Murkowski's involvement is a sign that some Republicans may finally be willing to accept new regulation, after the 2010 Citizens United decision and other court rulings eroded the transparency of the election funding system and led to more than $400 million in unaccountable spending in the 2012 election. The large majority of this $400 million, also known as "dark money," was spent by nonprofits that register under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code and therefore need not reveal their donors. The groups range from the Karl Rove-connected Crossroads GPS to a network of organizations created by or connected to the billionaire Koch brothers. Campaign finance reformers contend that many of these so-called social welfare nonprofits, in fact, operate almost entirely as political organizations due to a lack of clear rules and a failure of government enforcement.

While the senators begin building a coalition in favor of campaign reform, Wyden promises to keep the pressure on the IRS about oversight of the tax-exempt status of those politically busy nonprofits. He said he will use his position on the Senate Finance Committee to ask any relevant witness, whether a nominee or an official, about the IRS' failure to update its guidelines on 501(c)(4) groups since the Citizens United ruling.

"I'm going to use my position on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the IRS, to, every time I'm out, ask questions about nominees, what they're going to do to get serious about the rules on social welfare organizations," Wyden said.

The senator began doing this in December at the confirmation hearing for Christopher Meade, the nominee for general counsel at the Treasury Department. He pressed Meade to make social welfare organization enforcement a priority for the IRS.

Meade admitted that he did not know much about the issue, but stated, "I know it is something that the Office of Tax Policy and IRS is looking at, and I would be happy to look at that issue, to talk to the chief counsel of IRS, who is a -- as you know, a Senate-confirmed official, and talk about that question and about making that a priority for the agency."

The legislation that Wyden and Murkowski are looking to put forward includes a requirement that all groups spending at least $500 in political campaigns must register and disclose nearly all of their donors. A limited exemption would be given to dues-supported organizations to allow them not to disclose any contribution under $500 by a dues-paying member. Contributions exceeding $500 from members, however, would have to be disclosed.

Public communications made by independent groups, whether they were television or radio ads or robocalls, would be subject to a "stand by your ad" provision requiring disclosure of the group's top three donors.

To clarify the oversight regime currently split between the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, the legislation would require the FEC and IRS to come up with joint regulations to cover disclosure. It would also institute a system of instant online disclosure for all political committees and reduce disclosure of small contributions by raising the threshold for reporting from $200 to $500.

Wyden thinks the average American would support his proposal.

"When people hear that their tax dollars are being used to subsidize what are essentially campaign operations that call themselves social welfare organizations and get these tax breaks and anonymity, they're just flabbergasted," he said about conversations he has had at town meetings in Oregon. "People are getting furious."

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