On Thursday, President Trump vowed to “destroy the Johnson Amendment,” a law that requires nonprofits to refrain from endorsing political candidates in order to keep their tax exemption. He made the promise at the National Prayer Breakfast because he wants to allow churches to play politics while taking tax-deductible donations. But the true effect of the move would be to weaken our campaign finance system with a “dark money” loophole of Biblical proportions.
Dark money—spending on elections by groups that hide the identities of their donors—dramatically increased after the Supreme Court loosened limits on political spending by nonprofits in 2007. Secret spending was virtually nonexistent before then, but the last five federal elections have seen more than $800 million. Yet so far, dark money only accounts for a minority of election spending.
Increasing opportunities for wealthy interests to use secret spending to get what they want from politicians can’t be what Trump meant when he promised to 'drain the swamp.'
If churches could spend on politics, the amount of political money that’s untraceable to an actual person or special interest would surely skyrocket. Churches would be the ideal vehicle for wealthy interests who want to influence elections from the shadows. That’s because they have to disclose even less financial information than the nonprofits currently being used for secret spending. And most importantly, donations to churches are tax deductible, meaning the taxpayers subsidize their activities.
So if Trump gets his way, every political hack in America could start a church—which is surprisingly easy—and raise huge checks to spend on elections, promising donors that the public will never know and the more they give, the lower their tax bill will be.
Without transparency in election spending, voters can’t effectively hold elected officials accountable, and special interests with money to spend can manipulate the government to boost their bottom line. Stories of special interests using dark money abound, like former Utah Attorney General John Swallow, who benefited from secret spending by the payday loan industry. The industry wanted an attorney general who would shield them from rules designed to protect consumers. The spending was unveiled by a blistering legislative investigation, and Swallow later resigned after being hit by unrelated bribery charges.
Increasing opportunities for wealthy interests to use secret spending to get what they want from politicians can’t be what Trump meant when he promised to “drain the swamp.”
For half a century, the Johnson Amendment has been a crucial brick in the wall of separation between church and state. Churches’ activities, whether worship or service to the community, are subsidized by tax deductions, but influencing elections is not. For politics, there are ample opportunities to organize and raise money under disclosure rules that protect us all from corruption and capture of government by special interests. Trump and his allies in Congress should not open a new avenue for dark money to flood our politics.