What a Difference Unlimited Contributions Make

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December 8, 2010; Source: Alaska Daily News | The sub-head on this story from the Alaska Daily News on how nonprofits took advantage of new rules that allow unlimited donations to political campaigns tells it all: “Many contributions would have been illegal in the past.” According to the newspaper, post-election filings show that Alaskans Standing Together a “super” political action committee raised $1.7 million over 38 days, including the single biggest contribution from a nonprofit that advocates for the state’s Native community.

Alaskans Standing Together supported efforts to re-elect Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who had been running as a write-in candidate, after losing her primary bid to GOP candidate Joe Miller. The $308,000 contribution to the PAC from Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) represented the group’s first-ever to a political candidate in its 44-year history. Because AFN is a 501(c)4, which means donations to it are not tax deductible—unlike those to a 501(c)3, it was able to make unlimited donations to support the Murkowski campaign.

That permission followed the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in the Citizens United case that lifted restrictions on donations to political campaigns without requiring that recipient groups disclose names of donors. Although it’s not likely to happen, especially with a Republican Congress that benefited most from the large cash infusions that helped the GOP recapture the House of Representatives and increase their Senate seats, Murkowski said she’d be in favor of changes in the law to limit contributions and require disclosures in future campaigns.

As she put it, “I have brought it up in conversation with several colleagues, and we all say we need to be looking at this and figuring out what the answer is, because this was this trial run with these, and the amount of money that we saw I think was just overwhelming, and I don’t say overwhelming in a good way.” We have no way of knowing, of course, if Murkowski’s tongue was planted against her cheek when she made those comments.—Bruce Trachtenberg